By Mike Lillis - 04/01/11 09:35 PM EDT
With just a week to go before a possible government shutdown, signs emerged Friday that some Republicans are willing to negotiate from the $61 billion in cuts they’ve been demanding this year.
A dozen freshman Republicans speaking to reporters outside the Capitol fell silent when asked if they'd insist that the 2011 spending bill include at least $61 billion in cuts.
After a moment, freshman Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark) spoke up.
“We can't speculate on hypotheticals – we've been clear about that from the outset,” Crawford said. “What we’d like to see is some action from Mr. Reid to bring something to the floor so we can work with him.”
Some more veteran GOP conservatives weren't so cautious, vowing instead to oppose any spending deal that cuts less than the $61 billion approved by the House last month.
“Anything less than the $61 billion is an insult to the gravity of the problem,” Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) said at the press conference, held on the Senate steps of the Capitol to apply symbolic pressure on Reid. “I will not vote for anything less than $61 billion in cuts."
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) insisted there was no deal between Republicans and Democrats, but also warned that a government shutdown after April 8 would cost more than it would save, a stark signal of the GOP leader’s desire to avert that outcome.
Boehner’s comments also represented a signal to his conference that shutting down the government might not reduce the country’s deficit, because interruptions in contracts could end up increasing government costs in the long run.
Senate Democrats, the White House and House Republicans have reportedly been in talks to cut an additional $23 billion this year on top of the $10 billion that's already law.
Negotiations are to continue this weekend, Boehner and Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said Friday.
Rogers said he was not sure when leaders would be able to give appropriators the numbers they need to write a measure to fund the government for the rest of the year. He said he will be working through the weekend on moving the process forward.
“We met with the cardinals yesterday and the clerks and emphasized the imperative of time,” he said. The 12 appropriations subcommittee chairmen are known as cardinals.
Boehner is under intense pressure from conservatives to win $61 billion in cuts, but the comments from Broun and Crawford suggest the real problem for the Speaker might be more veteran members.
Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) is one such lawmaker. He said Friday that it's “absolutely imperative" that Republicans stick to their campaign pledge to reduce federal spending to pre-stimulus levels in fiscal year 2011.
“That will require $61 billion in savings this year,” Pence said.
“With a $1.65 trillion deficit, $61 billion is nothing more than a down payment on fiscal discipline,” he added. “We simply have to keep our word to the American people.”
Boehner on Friday repeated that the GOP will “fight for the largest spending cuts that we can get.”
While Republicans may be willing to negotiate, they are outwardly dubious of the Democrats' counter-offer of $33 billion. They're curious why they haven't seen any details of the cuts.
“That number is just fictitious,” Rep. Jeffrey Landry (R-La.), a freshman, said Friday. “When he [Reid] comes out here on those steps and shows us a list of what that $33 billion is, I'll believe it.”
At the heart of the debate is a fierce disagreement over the role of government to boost the economy, following the worst economic downturn in 80 years. Republicans want to cut spending immediately, arguing federal deficits have crippled the private sector's ability to create jobs. Democrats, on the other hand, want to spend more this year on education, research and infrastructure projects. The GOP cuts, they warn, will kill jobs amid a lingering employment crisis.
“Americans need to be confident that their government is building on our economic recovery, not undermining it,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Friday in a statement.
Democrats were emboldened in the spending fight by Friday's employment numbers, which revealed that 216,000 jobs were created in March — 230,000 in the private sector. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the numbers are evidence that the Democrats' economic stimulus efforts “have moved our country in the right direction.”
A number of top economists including Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, have estimated the $61 billion in cuts would eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs over the next two years. Republican leaders dispute those figures.
Democrats have also been critical of the specific GOP cuts, arguing that scaling back programs such as Head Start, Pell grants, community health centers and child nutrition programs will strike low-income Americans disproportionately.
But some Republicans say the cuts won't harm many of the programs they're targeting.
Landry, for instance, said that a good chunk of the money targeted for programs like community health centers never reaches those programs to begin with.
“All the money stays up here; it gets tied up in the bureaucracy up here,” Landry said, referring to Washington. "Once we chop down this bureaucracy, we can actually get money into the programs that actually work, and fund them at levels that are nowhere near these record levels.”
When he explains this to constituents wary of losing their jobs over the GOP cuts, Landry said, “they're fine with that.”
“And they appreciate the conversation.”