With Republican rifts on cuts, McConnell faces test to unite colleagues

Rifts have already begun to emerge in the Senate Republican Conference over a House GOP proposal to cut $61 billion from the federal budget.

Conservative and even some mainstream members are calling for Senate Republicans to go even further than the House in trimming government expenditures for the rest of this year.

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But centrists facing reelection in 2012 say it would be unwise to cut crucial funds for people who depend on federal assistance to heat their homes or feed their children.

The emerging disagreements signal the challenge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will face in keeping his conference unified throughout a debate over spending.

McConnell predicted during a radio interview last week that “Senate Republicans are going to unify around whatever reduction they can get out of the House,” and he re-emphasized that point Tuesday.

“We’ll see whether the Senate wants to establish different priorities,” he said. “But in terms of the overall reductions, we’re committed to trying to achieve the same amount of reductions in this fiscal year that hopefully the House will be able to pass later this week.”

Forging that unity will be a test of McConnell’s leadership skills. He received high praise for keeping Republicans unified against healthcare reform in 2009 and 2010, which increased the political pressure on Democrats.

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Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, called for GOP leaders to go further than the $61 billion proposed by the House. “Looks like they could cut $100 billion,” he said.

House Republicans pledged during the 2010 campaign to cut $100 billion from the federal budget to bring spending down to fiscal 2008 levels.

The newest proposal would set spending levels at $100 billion fewer than President Obama proposed for fiscal 2011, but it would not cut that much from the spending trajectory set by a stopgap measure due to expire March 4. 

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a founding member of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, said the pending House proposal does not come close to addressing the deficit problem.

“It’s still not enough,” said Paul. “It’s barely a rounding error. If you have $1.5 trillion debt and you make it a $1.45 trillion, you just haven’t cut enough. The president’s plan doesn’t address the problem, and the Republican plan still needs to be more bold.”

 The Obama administration estimates the budget deficit will reach more than $1.6 trillion this year.

 Other Senate Republicans, including members of their leadership, say they are satisfied with the initial plan to slim the federal budget for the rest of this year. 

“It gets $100 billion below the president’s number, which is what they made their commitment in the pledge,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), referring to the Pledge to America, the House GOP’s campaign platform in 2010.

 However, Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, a centrist Republican who faces a tough reelection in 2012, has balked at the House Republican plan to cut $390 million in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

 “Programs like LIHEAP that people need, there are other things we can cut before we cut things for people who need it the most,” Brown said.

Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), another candidate for reelection in 2012, has long supported nutrition programs for low-income women and children.

He is skeptical of a House proposal to cut $747 million from the supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children.

“That would appear to me to be unwise,” Lugar said.

Lugar predicted the Senate would rework the spending cuts approved by the House.

“The Senate result will be substantially different,” said Lugar. “Sixty-one billion dollars in cuts appears to be beyond what is likely to happen.”

The House will consider dozens of amendments to the continuing resolution designed to fund government through the end of the fiscal year. Conservative lawmakers could pass amendments that increase the proposed spending reduction for the rest of 2011.

The Senate will also debate a variety of amendments that could eliminate controversial spending cuts, such as an $88 million reduction to the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service and a $203 million cut in the COPS program, which offers grants for community policing.

Other centrists say they will reserve judgment on the proposed spending cuts until after the House passes its continuing resolution. Debate opened Tuesday.

“I’m going to wait to see what the final version is that comes over,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

 Collins said the total amount of federal spending cut was less important than knowing which specific programs would get hit the hardest. 

“It depends what it’s out of,” Collins said. “I support the elimination of the ethanol subsidy — that’s worth some $6 billion a year. 

“I think we should cap farm subsidies for wealthy corporate farmers,” she added.

Freshman Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said the Senate Republican Conference would be “generally supportive” of the House proposal because of growing concern about the deficit.

When asked about cuts to food safety and nutritional assistance programs, he said they were less important than the “clear and present danger” the debt poses to the economy. “You can die a death of 1,000 cuts looking at each individual program, but the principle should be that all programs are reduced to share the burden,” he said.

Senate Democrats also face divisions within their own ranks over how to proceed on spending cuts.

Democratic leaders have praised the budget President Obama submitted to Congress on Monday as a good start. 

Some centrists, though, have panned it for not doing enough to address the deficit.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), one of the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents, said Obama needed to take bolder action.

“What we have is a budget proposal from the president designed to get our attention, but given our fiscal challenges, it does not go far enough,” Manchin said in a statement. “This is not what the country needs or expects.”

Jordan Fabian contributed to this report.