Not good enough: Tea Party freshmen sink Republican spending plan

Chastened GOP leaders promised Thursday to find a full $100 billion in spending cuts after freshmen lawmakers torpedoed a proposal that they said betrayed the party’s “Pledge to America.”

In a stinging rebuke to party leadership, Republicans on the Appropriations Committee abandoned plans to seek only $74 billion in cuts just hours before their continuing resolution was set to be unveiled.

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The abrupt reversal set off a mad scramble among Republican staffers to scrape together the extra cuts in time to unveil the final spending resolution by Friday.

Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) said Thursday evening that the GOP had come to a verbal agreement on a path forward on a continuing resolution with $100 billion in cuts. 

The reversal was a clear victory for Tea Party-backed freshmen who had resisted the $74 billion cut despite endorsements from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and other members of the party leadership.

The turnaround was also a setback for the party’s leading fiscal hawk and rising star, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who unveiled the $74 billion spending plan last week and immediately faced questions about whether the proposal lived up to his tough talk about federal spending.

Cantor said Thursday evening that the caucus was “uniting” around a plan to cut $100 billion, while Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) commended the 87 freshmen lawmakers for pushing through a tough decision for America. 

“What we heard here was a commitment to the $100 billion reduction number,” Cantor said. “That is what we said we were going to do and that’s what we are going to do.”

One House aide said the GOP’s failure to pass an extension of the Patriot Act this week alerted the House leadership to the growing dissatisfaction of their members.

“I think the Patriot Act failure woke up leadership to a rising problem,” the aide said. 

A Republican leadership aide downplayed the apparent party rift, telling the Hill that the battle over the spending resolution prompted “one of the biggest and best debates that we have ever had as a conference in a very long time.”

“We’re having all kinds of conversations with the freshmen, the [Republican Study Committee], leadership, chairmen — this is how the House is supposed to work. It’s not supposed to come from one office,” the source said.

Interior and Environment Appropriations subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) struggled to explain the leadership’s backtracking on Thursday.

He defended the earlier proposal from leadership as legitimately living up to the Pledge to return to 2008 levels of spending but said he could see why member were unhappy.

“There are an awful lot of members of our conference, who said, ‘No, I committed to cutting $100 billion,’” he said.

“The promise got away from us, but it is a promise that we made to the American people,” he said. “If that is what the conference wants to do, I am willing to do that. I can cut the Interior Department in half … just tell me a number and I will get a bill there.”

“There’s going to be some pretty dramatic cuts,” Simpson said, adding that he told Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) that “each individual member is going to say to themselves, ‘Am I going to do more damage voting for these dramatic cuts, or do I do more damage to myself not voting for $100 billion in spending?’”

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), an Appropriations Committee member who voted against the initial proposal, said party leaders were forced to reverse course by the rank-and-file.

“I thought it was pretty clear to all that we needed to cut a little bit more deeply,” Flake said.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) had intended to release a continuing resolution (CR) Thursday to fund the government after March 4 that would have cut $32 billion from current spending levels and $74 billion from Obama’s 2011 budget request. 

But the growing unrest over the proposal forced appropriators back to the drawing board.

“After meeting with my subcommittee Chairs, we have determined that the CR can and will reach a total of $100 billion in cuts compared to the President’s request immediately — fully meeting the goal outlined in the Republican ‘Pledge to America’ in one fell swoop,” Rogers said in a statement Thursday.

The new continuing resolution, which will be unveiled Friday, will contain $100 billion in cuts from Obama’s budget, although Republicans and Democrats were arguing about the math used to calculate that number late Thursday. For example, a deeper cut could be achieved by using current spending levels rather than an Obama 2011 budget never enacted.

GOP leaders acknowledged that the $100 billion cut would include reductions in security spending, which could be opposed through floor amendments.

Rogers had originally proposed the $16 billion in cuts to security spending to reach the $100 billion target, but Flake said that idea was unsatisfactory.

“That is the kind of math we have been ridiculing for years,” Flake said.

Flake’s math had the backing of the conservative Club for Growth, which issued an alert to all members warning they would be given a negative score on spending if they voted for anything less than $100 billion in non-security cuts in the CR.

Aides said the revised measure must be released Friday if it is to have time for a debate and floor vote next week as planned. Under a three-day rule the GOP instituted in January, bills have to be unveiled three days before a floor vote. The House is in session for four days next week.

Staff was scrambling to come up with more cuts to non-security discretionary spending on Thursday after a late-night huddle Wednesday by Appropriations Committee cardinals.

Labor and Health Appropriations subcommittee Chairman Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) said Thursday he has been instructed to quickly find an addition $11 billion to cut from his area of spending in a matter of hours.

“For me it’s painful ... I have to deal with labor, it’s job training; with health, it’s community health centers; with education, it’s kids,” he said. “Mine is a painful process to find the savings necessary.”

At a Thursday subcommittee hearing, Appropriations member John Culberson (R-Texas) urged NASA Inspector General Paul Martin to give him a list of specific cuts immediately because the continuing resolution was being written as they spoke.

“We need real specific, real quickly,” he said.

Under the Rogers bill, NASA was already set to receive a $379 million cut from Obama’s budget request.

  If some form of a continuing resolution is not passed by March 4, the federal government will be forced to shut down.

The House will be out of session the last full week of February, leaving only one week for the House and Senate to act before the deadline.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) has already said that even if the House passes a CR next week, the Senate would be unable to deal with it by March 4. That means a short-term continuing resolution, perhaps lasting only for a few weeks, will be needed to avoid a shutdown.

Russell Berman and Molly K. Hooper contributed to this report.

This story was originally posted at 11:30 a.m. and last updated at 8:42 p.m.