Republicans throw right hooks in escalating fight over budget, debt

House conservatives said Wednesday the budget deficit should be cut in half and spending should be reduced by as much as $381 billion next year in exchange for a higher debt ceiling.

Separately, GOP appropriators spelled out deep non-defense spending cuts for agencies in order to meet the $46 billion in reductions promised in the House 2012 budget resolution. Appropriations also vowed to move nine of the 12 spending bills through the lower chamber by the August recess. 

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The markers represent new fronts in the multifaceted fight over the budget and spending.

The main event is a three-way battle among the White House, Senate Democrats and House Republicans, who are negotiating which spending cuts would allow Congress to raise the nation’s $14.3 trillion deficit limit by the Aug. 2 deadline set by the Treasury Department. 

The fight also has sparked internal skirmishes within both parties, with conservative Republicans pressing their leaders to push for the largest spending cuts possible and Democrats facing internal and often conflicting pressures from liberal and centrist members over how deep to cut.

The letter circulated Wednesday by leaders of the conservative Republican Study Committee to its 176 members is intended to send a signal to the White House and to stiffen the spine of Republican leaders. 

The conservative group asked its members to demand that the deficit be cut in half; that a ceiling be imposed on spending equal to 18 percent of gross domestic product; and that a balanced-budget amendment be added to the Constitution. Spending now stands at 24 percent of GDP.

The letter also asks for “a Spending Limitation Amendment” that would make the cap on spending as a portion of GDP a part of the Constitution and would impose high hurdles in order for taxes to be increased. 

“The fast-approaching debt ceiling vote gives us an opportunity to make a bold statement to the American people about what direction we want our country to go,” the letter obtained by The Hill states.

Because the Congressional Budget Office projects higher revenue will reduce next year’s deficit from $1.4 trillion to $1.08 trillion, RSC spokesman Brian Straessle said another $381 billion would have to be cut to reduce the deficit by half.

With its demands, the RSC is reprising the role it established during talks this spring over 2011 spending levels that nearly led to a government shutdown.

In that fight, the RSC joined with GOP freshmen to pressure Republican leaders into increasing their demands for 2011 cuts from $35 billion to $61 billion. Republicans and the White House eventually agreed to a deal that cut $38.5 billion from current spending. The RSC’s opening position was to call for current spending to be reduced by $100 billion.

The release by GOP appropriators of spending ceilings for government agencies sets the stage for another government shutdown drama in the fall.

The House is essentially assuming that the two chambers will not be able to reconcile competing budget resolutions, as required by law, and takes the House-passed budget resolution as its guidance.

The House floor will be dominated into September by the 12 appropriations bills, according to Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.). He said in a statement that he still intends to have spending bills enacted by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

“I promised when I became chairman that I would complete our appropriations work on time and on budget, and I will do everything I can to fulfill that promise,” Rogers said.

To reach the House-approved ceiling for discretionary spending of $1.019 trillion, big cuts would be made to several departments. And because the Appropriations panel aims to give the Pentagon a $17 billion increase in funding, non-defense discretionary funding will have to be cut by about $46 billion in total.

The Labor and Health and Human Services departments would be hit the hardest, with an $18 billion cut compared to current levels. State is set to be cut by $8.6 billion and Transportation by $7.7 billion.

The 2012 process allows leadership a do-over on the 2011 continuing resolution fight.

“Anything that was cut in the CR and then restored will probably be cut again,” Appropriations Agriculture subcommittee Chairman Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said.

Appropriations Committee Ranking member Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) called the cuts “brutal.”

Overall, the GOP would put spending levels at $102 billion less than President Obama’s request for $1.121 trillion in discretionary spending, and $30 billion less than the level of spending reached in the 2011 spending-cut compromise, which left discretionary spending at $1.049 trillion.

The Homeland Security and military construction appropriations bills will be marked up first by the full committee on May 23, while State and Foreign Operations will be the last bill to see a markup, on Aug. 3.

While conservatives rally their party around deep cuts, Senate Democrats are fighting over what role higher taxes should play in lowering the deficit. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) on Tuesday proposed what has been described as a 50-50 split between higher taxes and spending cuts that liberals saw as a step in the right direction, but that will worry some centrists. 

Obama told Senate Democrats attending a meeting at the White House on Wednesday that they need to be unified in the showdown with Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Obama ended an almost two-hour meeting by telling the senators to “work together.”

“We are singing from the same hymnbook on the same page,” Reid said.

-- Sam Youngman contributed to this report.