Conservatives criticize GOP bill to replace automatic cuts

House conservatives will be holding their noses as they vote for legislation to replace defense cuts slated for 2013 on Thursday, with one member denouncing the bill as a piece of “election-year grandstanding.”

The deficit-reduction package that House Republican leaders are bringing to the floor restores $72 billion in cuts to the Pentagon and domestic budget contained in the debt-ceiling deal Congress approved last summer. The legislation contains $315 billion in new cuts elsewhere in the budget.

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Several conservatives who opposed the 2011 debt-limit hike say they will likely support the legislation Thursday, but they first delivered a bitter message to their party’s leadership: We told you so.

“It’s a façade. I mean, come on,” freshman Rep. Jeff Landry (R-La.) said Wednesday during a press briefing with other House conservatives. “This is a smoke screen to protect people who voted to raise the debt ceiling.

“Yes, I’m leaning toward voting for it, because I believe in the cuts,” Landry added, “but I hate to have to clean up after we told people that that bill was going to be a failure. This is all this is. This is election-year grandstanding, so that certain members out there have cover for the mistake that they made in August.”

The legislation to raise the debt ceiling, titled the Budget Control Act, set up a 12-member “supercommittee” to work out a broader deficit-reduction deal. When that panel failed to produce an agreement, it triggered under the law $1.2 trillion in across-the-board spending cuts over 10 years split evenly between the military and domestic programs.

Both Republicans and top Pentagon officials have warned that the arbitrary cuts to the defense budget could hollow out the military, and House GOP leaders are pushing their bill in part to pressure Democrats to offer their own proposal for replacing the automatic cuts, which are often referred to as the sequester.

The GOP measure goes well beyond replacing the sequester and includes $315 billion in cuts to social programs, including food stamps, as well as to the 2010 healthcare and financial regulatory laws.

However, conservatives say the move to replace the defense cuts affirms their warnings last year that the promised spending cuts would never materialize.

“It’s like a whole shell game around this town,” freshman Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) said in an interview. “This potentially puts us down that road of not delivering what we promised.”

Huelskamp said he expressed his concerns to GOP leaders when he saw the party’s budget proposal, which called for replacing the defense cuts through a process known as reconciliation. 

“At that time, I was told by multiple leaders that ‘we all know there’s not going to be a sequester,’ ” he said. “It seems to be the general assumption.”

Huelskamp would not disclose which Republican leaders told him the sequester would be gone.

House Democrats announced on Wednesday that they would offer a competing proposal to replace the “meat-ax” cuts in the sequester, but any agreement to change the law is not expected before a lame-duck session after the November elections.

Democrats view the looming Pentagon cuts as critical leverage in a broader debate over tax policy and another increase in the debt ceiling, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) issued a statement warning that the House GOP bill would go nowhere in the Senate. He said the automatic cuts were “a tough pill to swallow, but it’s a balanced approach to reduce the deficit that shares the pain as well as the responsibility.”

Another first-term Republican, Rep. Raul Labrador (Idaho), said he was “not terribly happy” with the GOP package and the party establishment’s refusal to include the Defense Department in budget cutting. “I’ll vote for it because I am always for anything that reduces spending, but I think we’re losing moral authority as Republicans if we say that there’s something that’s not on the table,” Labrador said.

The House Republican budget chief, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), defended the bills, which came out of his committee. He noted that legislation followed the House GOP budget, which drew support from all but 10 members of the conference

“We’re cutting $315 billion instead of $78 billion. I think that’s a pretty good deal,” he said. 

The Congressional Budget Office has revised the level of restored cuts to $72 billion.