House adds $500 million in cuts

The House on Wednesday made its first substantive changes to a $1 trillion Republican spending bill, adopting amendments that underscore the new Tea Party bent in Washington.

Yet the most costly questions will come before lawmakers on Thursday, as they decide whether to defund President Obama’s healthcare law and add tens of billions of dollars in spending cuts to a bill that already reduces federal funding by $61 billion.

In the most significant early change, lawmakers cut $450 million in funding for a second engine for the Joint Strike Fighter, as Republican freshmen joined Democrats to eliminate a military program that the Pentagon has said is unnecessary. The 233-198 vote was a defeat for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), whose state would benefit from the funding and who voiced support for the engine earlier in the week. 

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Following tradition for House Speakers, Boehner did not vote, but the amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), said Boehner had personally tried to dissuade members from cutting the engine funding. 

“I’ve been trying to stay away from him,” Rooney said.

Rooney’s amendment was one of several that lawmakers had approved in a marathon debate on the spending bill, which would fund the government through September, the end of the fiscal year.

Current government funding runs out March 4, and GOP leaders are using this bill, known as a continuing resolution, to make their first sizable dent in federal spending.

After four initial amendments were rejected on Tuesday night, lawmakers considered another 21 in two rapid-fire series of votes on Wednesday. Members were given only two minutes to vote on most of the measures, and with few recommendations from their leadership, they shuffled through pages of text and checked with colleagues on the House floor to determine what pocket of money they were judging at any given time.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and other members of the GOP leadership voted for several proposed spending cuts that the House rejected. Republican leaders were not overtly lobbying lawmakers for or against amendments.

The long slog of debate and amendments on the bill threatened to keep lawmakers in Washington past Thursday afternoon, when members are scheduled to depart for a 10-day recess. Cantor sent a note to members saying he still hoped to finish the legislation sometime Thursday, but left open the possibility that debate would extend into Friday.

It was not clear how many of the several hundred remaining amendments would be offered on the floor on Thursday.

Lawmakers submitted 583 amendments to the legislation, taking advantage of the open process that party leaders crafted for the bill. The House voted on the first few dozen on Tuesday night and Wednesday, but the bulk of the remaining amendments will be addressed Thursday, after the clerk finishes reading the 359-page bill on the floor.

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The remaining amendments have the potential to dramatically reshape the legislation. They include two measures that would prohibit funding for the implementation of the healthcare law, along with an amendment backed by conservative Republicans to deepen spending cuts by $20 billion.

The Obama administration has already threatened to veto the spending bill, but the version that emerges from the House will set a marker for negotiations with the Democratic-controlled Senate and the White House.

The House approved seven of the first 25 amendments to receive a roll-call vote, cutting more than $500 million from the underlying bill as of late Wednesday evening. Nearly $4 billion in proposed reductions were rejected.

Many of the spending votes shattered traditional party lines. An early proposal by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to cut $18.75 million in defense funds, for example, drew more support from Democrats than Republicans. The measure failed on a close vote, 207-223.

Dozens of liberal Democrats and Tea Party-aligned Republicans supported Flake’s amendment, but both party leadership teams were divided. Voting in favor were Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas). Voting against were Cantor and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

House Democrats scored a victory on Wednesday as well, when the lower chamber voted for two amendments to restore funding to firefighters and policemen.

Lawmakers voted 318-113 in support of Rep. Bill Pascrell’s (D-N.J.) amendment to restore funding to local firefighters and policemen.

“Throwing police and firefighters off the job isn’t going to solve the deficit,” Pelosi said in a statement. “That’s why House Democrats took action today to restore funding that will keep police on the beat and hire and equip our nation’s firefighters,” Pelosi wrote in a statement released on Thursday.

The House also approved a proposal from Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) to redirect $298 million from NASA to the Community-Oriented Policing Services program for local law enforcement.

Pete Kasperowitz and Molly Hooper contributed reporting.