Conservatives in House push for another $20B in budget cuts

Conservative House Republicans are mounting what could be the most serious challenge to the GOP spending bill this week, offering an amendment that would slash federal funding by an additional $20 billion.

The amendment is sponsored by the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC), Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), and would force the GOP rank and file to choose whether to back a more ambitious package of spending cuts than the measure endorsed by party leadership. 

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The spending bill that Republicans brought to the floor on Tuesday, a continuing resolution drafted by the House Appropriations Committee, would cut $61 billion from fiscal 2010 spending levels.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had already bowed to demands from Tea Party-backed freshman Republicans to propose deeper cuts, but Jordan’s proposal would push the reductions even further.

His amendment is one of more than 400 submitted by lawmakers on Monday as members jumped at the chance for a rare open debate on a spending bill that GOP leaders have billed as their first chance to bring down the deficit. 

Lawmakers were expected to file dozens if not hundreds of additional amendments before the deadline on Tuesday, and the House prepared for an around-the-clock debate in a bid to pass the 359-page bill by Thursday.

Republican leaders said the process was unprecedented and conceded the outcome was unclear. “I’m ready to expect whatever,” Boehner said on the House floor shortly before debate began.

Lawmakers were told that their amendments had to be filed in advance and be “germane” to the appropriations bill. The House clerk began reading the bill aloud around 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, and members must offer their amendments when the section they want to change is read.

The amendments that were filed ran the gamut of policy and politics. Some, like Jordan’s, were sweeping in scope, while others dealt with obscure government departments and minuscule amounts of money. In a city where even an allocation of $10 million can be considered a rounding error, one amendment offered by Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) proposed to strike a single dollar from the Department of Agriculture budget.

Some lawmakers proposed changes clearly aimed at making a political point. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) offered amendments that would ban the Defense Department from sponsoring NASCAR vehicles, or from spending more than $200 million on “military bands, musical equipment or musical performance.”

From Texas alone, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R) proposed banning funds from being used for repairs at the White House executive residence, Rep. Ted Poe (R) pushed to cut funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and Rep. Ron Paul (R) tried to strike the foreign aid budget.

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) offered an amendment to prohibit funding for 102 separate affiliates of Planned Parenthood, the reproductive health organization and abortion provider.

Yet Jordan’s amendment is the one that could make the deepest imprint on the GOP spending bill. Boehner has trumpeted the fact that the bill would reduce President Obama’s budget request for 2011, which was never enacted, by $100 billion — a number that matches the Republican “Pledge to America” for spending cuts in the first year.

Conservative members of the GOP conference have pushed to cut a full $100 billion from current spending, and Jordan’s amendment would bring the total reductions closer to that total. His amendment calls for across-the-board cuts to the appropriations bill that currently directs funding for the government, with exceptions for certain areas, most notably aid to Israel. 

A spokesman for the congressman, Brian Straessle, said Jordan’s measure would reduce current spending by another $19 billion to $20 billion beyond the cuts outlined by party leaders. The goal, he said, is to fully return non-security discretionary spending to 2008 levels.

The bill introduced by the House Appropriations Committee gets to $100 billion in cuts, compared to Obama’s 2011 budget request, by making $81 billion in non-security cuts and $19 billion in reductions from security areas. RSC leaders believe that the promise in the Pledge to America was to cut $100 billion from non-security spending only. Last week, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said there would be an amendment on the floor to bring non-security reductions up to $100 billion.

Asked about this, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) noted that the wording of the pledge does not specify non-security cuts. It only talks about making “common-sense exceptions for seniors, veterans and our troops.” Because of this, McCarthy said, the leadership bill meets the pledge.

The Obama administration officially threatened a presidential veto of the spending bill on Tuesday, saying the legislation “proposes cuts that would sharply undermine core government functions and investments key to economic growth and job creation, and would reduce funding for the Department of Defense to a level that would leave the department without the resources and flexibility needed to meet vital military requirements.”

 Congress must pass a funding bill by March 4 to avert a government shutdown. In the early hours of the debate Tuesday, liberal Democrats took to the floor to denounce the bill’s cuts to key programs benefiting needy Americans.

 Despite the fissures in the GOP conference over how much to cut, many Republicans seemed mollified by the open amendment process leaders crafted. Flake, a prominent spending hawk, offered the first amendment on the floor Tuesday, but he proclaimed the openness “refreshing.” “This is just a great process,” he said.

 Not all Republicans were happy, however. The most vocal critic on Tuesday was Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who complained that his amendment to strip funding for the 2010 healthcare law was rejected on a procedural issue. He voted “present” on the rule governing debate for the spending bill and said he might vote against the entire measure. 

“The Speaker said, ‘Let the House work its will.’ Well, the rules don’t allow the House to work its will,” King said after the vote.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) was the only other Republican to oppose the procedural measure, which garnered support from eight Democrats.