By Russell Berman - 03/07/11 11:00 AM EST
The hard-charging House majority will be faced with a historic choice this month: Compromise with President Obama, or roll the dice and shut down the government.
Where Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his 87 Republican freshmen draw the line on spending will shape the entire 112th Congress. For now, the GOP and Obama are about $50 billion apart — and the clock is ticking.
But finding common ground with the president is a touchy topic for Boehner, who refrains from using the word “compromise.”
Boehner heads into talks with a strong hand, having won a preliminary skirmish where Democrats agreed to $4 billion in immediate cuts to keep Washington running for two weeks past the expiration of current government funding.
But Democrats and the White House are not likely to fold as easily again, putting pressure on Boehner to craft an agreement that can win approval from the GOP’s feisty freshman class while avoiding Obama’s veto.
“There’s an ideological clash that’s going to come, and we have to stay strong,” said Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), one of the 87 Republican freshmen.
The question is how closely the final agreement will resemble the legislation that House Republicans passed last month, which would cut $61 billion from 2010 spending levels.
The $61 billion amounts to $100 billion less than Obama’s budget request for 2011 — the target Republicans have held up as fulfilling a principal plank in their “Pledge to America.”
Obama has already criticized dozens of GOP policy provisions, including defunding implementation of the healthcare reform law, restrictions on the Environmental Protection Agency and a ban on funding for Planned Parenthood, among others. The president called for a bipartisan deal “free of any party’s social or political agenda.”
Some rank-and-file Republicans have declared the healthcare provisions and $61 billion in cuts non-negotiable. Conservative Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Steve King (R-Iowa) cited the exclusion of the healthcare restrictions in their decision to vote against the two-week continuing resolution Congress approved last week.
Freshman Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) signaled he’ll oppose any bill that does not cut at least $61 billion in spending. “I don’t see any room for compromise on that, unless we’re willing to go beyond that,” he told The Hill.
Other conservatives are more circumspect. “In the end, it all depends on the whole package,” said Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.), president of the freshman class.
Another first-termer, Rep. Dave Schweikert of Arizona (R), said achieving a baseline level of cuts might take precedence over defunding healthcare.
It is unclear how many other GOP lawmakers agree. “The American people voted to cut spending, but they also voted for a change in direction. Defunding ObamaCare [and] defunding Planned Parenthood are part of the new direction the American people embraced in 2010,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) an influential conservative and former chairman of the House Republican Conference.
He would not specify a minimum level of cuts, but said, “Nobody wants a government shutdown, but the American people are losing patience, and I’m losing patience.”
Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel, would not reveal the Speaker’s minimum demands. “We’re not really planning on negotiating with ourselves in the press.”
Vice President Joe Biden opened negotiations for the White House by offering $6.5 billion in immediate cuts on top of the $4 billion already agreed to. This puts the two parties roughly $50 billion apart on proposed spending cuts.
Boehner dismissed that proposal as “unacceptable” and “indefensible” Friday, while Democrats say it means they have met Republicans halfway toward their $100 billion goal when the $10.5 billion in enacted cuts is added to $41 billion cut in December.
“That’s not cuts. That’s the status quo,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said. The Senate will test the House GOP’s $61 billion plan and the White House’s $6.5 billion plan in votes this week. Neither proposal is expected to get the 60 votes each needs to pass, which might force both sides to compromise.
Worried that the spending battle could repeat the pattern of the Obama tax-cut deal in December, liberals are warning Democrats not to buckle.
Meanwhile, Judson Phillips of the Tea Party Patriots group has already called for Boehner to face a primary challenge over his leadership on the spending bills.
There seems to be more patience elsewhere in the Tea Party movement. Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, said Phillips’s judgment was “extremely premature,” but also criticized senior Republicans for being timid.
“I don’t think they’ve been bold,” he said. “I think they’ve been afraid of this oversized myth about how much the government shutdown cost Republicans in 1995.”
“What you can achieve is pretty limited,” said Sal Russo, chief strategist for the Tea Party Express. “The Senate is still in Democrat hands, and we still have a liberal Democrat president.”
Republicans expect other opportunities to force spending cuts this year — party leaders plan to use the 2012 budget resolution and imminent debt-limit vote to do so.
“It’s not like this was our only bite at the apple,” Schweikert said after voting to keep the government open last week.
With the sides far apart, more short-term spending bills are probably needed to buy time and avert a shutdown after March 18, when the current resolution expires. Dems have condemned this piecemeal approach, but Cantor on Thursday said the GOP would “continue its process of cutting $2 billion a week” until its negotiating adversaries’ position becomes clear.
Mike Lillis, Erik Wasson and Pete Kasperowicz contributed to this article