GOP expects chaotic House debate over party’s planned $61B in cuts

House Republicans on Tuesday will launch their attempt to slash $61 billion in government spending, but the actual level of cuts that will emerge is anyone’s guess.

GOP leaders have pledged an open process for the floor debate on legislation to fund the government for the remainder of the year, and they are relishing the unpredictability that comes with it. 

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In fact, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) seems to be expecting it.

“I think Boehner is excited about the floor debate becoming chaotic,” one GOP leadership aide said.

Despite the fact Republicans saw the surprising defeat of two bills on the floor last week, aides said leaders are unconcerned about the potential chaos the debate on the continuing resolution could bring.

GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) is not planning to round up votes for or against individual amendments, leaving lawmakers to vote how they wish. 

The three days of debate on the spending bill, all leading up to a planned Thursday vote, will be a first major test of Boehner’s promise to allow the House to “work its will.”

Boehner and other GOP leaders have said their bill reduces spending by $100 billion, using the marker of President Obama’s fiscal 2011 request, which was never enacted. The actual level of cuts is $61 billion, an insufficient number for many Tea Party lawmakers.

Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), a former member of GOP leadership, is pushing for $100 billion in cuts to current government spending levels. He has said it is extremely important for House Republicans to deliver on the $100 billion promise they made in their 2010 “Pledge to America.”

Pressed on the discrepancy between the $61 billion and $100 billion figures, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Monday said their spending plan is consistent with the “Pledge”: “...when we crafted the Pledge to America, this was in the late summer, early fall, and the assumption we were operating on was [Obama’s proposed budget]...”

In 2010, congressional Democrats fell way behind schedule on spending bills, and instead opted to pass a series of stopgap spending measures.

Republican lawmakers could add billions or even tens of billion more in cuts on the House floor this week. With conservative activists closely monitoring the debate, there will be pressure on rank-and-file GOP members, and leaders, to vote for amendments that call for additional spending reductions. Voting against additional cuts could invite primary challenges.

Members of leadership told lawmakers from both parties they would accept any relevant amendments to the spending bill, as long as they were submitted by Tuesday night.

“Every member will have an opportunity to submit his or her vision of how we can reduce the deficit, and we will see that process take place throughout the entire week,” Cantor said. “There will be no limit to the number of amendments that members on either side of the aisle can offer.”

Boehner has taken pains to demonstrate that he is serious about changing the House culture from a process in which bills are crafted in the Speaker’s office to one that is driven by members. He shrugged off the unexpected losses last week as a byproduct of that reform.

Yet Democrats have cast the $61 billion in cuts as a non-starter in the Senate, as GOP leaders were forced to bow to the demands from Tea Party-backed freshmen to deepen cuts from an initial proposal, which would have reduced current spending by $32 billion.

And while cuts that greatly exceed the $61 billion marker would make it harder to reconcile with the Senate, Republicans say they would embrace that outcome. 

“It just gives us a stronger hand with the Senate,” a GOP aide said.

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Exactly what amendments will be offered remains unclear, as lawmakers have had little time to digest legislation that was not released until late Friday night. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) is expected to offer an amendment that would strip the legislation of all funding to implement the new healthcare law, and Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) has suggested he might also propose a healthcare-related change.

Democrats say Republican leaders have greatly overstated the openness of the process. They have noted that the proposed procedure calls for a “modified open rule,” not an open rule, which means that lawmakers must submit their amendments for printing in the Congressional Record in advance and cannot simply offer them spontaneously on the floor.

“This bill was written by Republicans behind closed doors in special conference meetings and in the Speaker’s office,” said Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “This bill was written in secret.”

While GOP lawmakers disagree about the size of the spending cuts, they have largely applauded the process Boehner and Cantor have outlined.

“I think it can be a healthy thing to open up the process, which they said they were going to do, and not always know what the outcome is going to be. Let the House work its will, let people offer amendments,” Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) said. “I like the openness. I like the ability for members to play a greater role, that it’s not just something being handed down by leadership.”

On the other hand, Chabot added, “if the House can’t get necessary business done — and we’re not there yet, because it’s so early — then that’s another consideration.”

And if the process becomes too unwieldy, some members expect Boehner to jump off the sidelines.

“When that happens, [Boehner] will step in and drop the ax,” Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.) said. “But we’re nowhere near that point yet.”

Appropriations Committee ranking member Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) said he hopes “both sides can be reasonable” in terms of offering amendments.

Dicks suggested at the Monday night Rules Committee meeting that leaders provide a way for the top two appropriators to review the list of proposed amendments during the course of debate on the CR to consolidate and reduce redundant amendments.

Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) delighted in Dicks’s suggestion, saying that Republicans were working on a similar plan to prevent “filibuster by amendment.”