Republicans to hold spending vote before State of the Union

House Republicans will force Democrats to go “on the record” about government spending in a symbolic vote next week timed to coincide with President Obama’s State of the Union address.

The House Rules Committee on Wednesday approved by a party-line vote of 8-4 a resolution calling on House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to limit non-security discretionary spending in the second half of 2011 to 2008 levels “or less.” 

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Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) said the full House will vote on the resolution on Tuesday in a bid to force every member to stake out a position on spending cuts ahead of Obama’s speech to Congress.

Committee Democrats chose to vote against the resolution Wednesday on largely procedural grounds. Rules Committee ranking member Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and witness House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) attacked the resolution as a political ploy lacking in substance since it has no dollar figures in it.

“It’s a very simple question: Where’s the number?” Van Hollen asked, adding that the resolution provides the “false illusion” of cutting spending without containing specifics.

Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) offered an amendment that would have required a House vote on the eventual spending-ceiling number, but that amendment was defeated on party lines.

Democrats questioned whether the cuts would jeopardize specific programs, from education to nuclear security, prompting an angry response from Republicans.

Dreier emphasized repeatedly that Republicans are not talking about “gutting” anything.

“That somehow we are gutting this or that program is a gross mischaracterization,” he said.

The resolution was not technically necessary, since Ryan has already been given special powers to unilaterally set spending ceilings for the rest of 2011. That power was specified in a rules package the House adopted at the beginning of January.

Democrats argue that Republicans were wrong to give Ryan such power in the first place.

But Dreier said Republicans had to empower Ryan to make the spending decisions because Democrats failed to pass a budget resolution last year.

Committee member Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) said that it is his understanding Ryan will hold open hearings and discussions before coming up with the ceilings. But Democrats argue that instead of allowing Ryan to set the numbers, the ceilings themselves should come up for a vote.

Dreier said Republicans are waiting for Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates on current spending in order to come up with precise dollar figures for Ryan’s cuts.

Dreier explained after the meeting that Republicans need the CBO numbers in order to determine what spending is now in the security category. The spending ceilings set by Ryan will not affect defense, homeland security, military construction or veterans’ affairs, Dreier said. Entitlements are also unaffected. 

He would not say when the continuing funding resolution will come up for a vote, but noted that the appropriators have “a lot of work in front of them.”

The first draft of the resolution approved on Wednesday would have guided Ryan to set ceilings that assume “a transition” to non-security spending at fiscal 2008 levels.

But Rules Committee member Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) introduced an amendment that stripped out wording about a transition to make it clear that the GOP will seek to get to 2008 spending levels right away.

The GOP vowed during the run-up to last year’s elections to reduce spending by $100 billion this year, but this month Republicans said that the $100 billion figure was based on the assumption that Democrats had enacted President Obama’s 2011 spending requests. Ryan has said the number is more like $60 billion.

It will be up to the House Appropriations Committee to come up with specific spending cuts to meet the Ryan ceilings in a continuing resolution to fund the government beyond March 4 through Sept. 30. That process is behind schedule.

“As I have said before, it is my intention to craft the largest series of spending cuts in the history of Congress. My committee is working diligently on this right now,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said in a release praising the resolution.