GOP senators are itching to move on from spat over 2011 spending cuts

Senate Republicans are growing impatient with the stalemate over 2011 funding levels and want to save their political capital for a debate on the debt limit and entitlement reform.

But they must contend with a bloc of House conservatives who want an unqualified budget victory over President Obama.

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For these die-hard conservatives, anything less than slashing $61 billion in spending and cutting funds for Planned Parenthood, the EPA and NPR would be a capitulation.

Senior Republican lawmakers, however, say they need to preserve their political juice for the fight over the debt limit and entitlement reform, which is more important.

They note that discretionary spending accounts for only 12 percent of the federal budget and that Congress needs to address the explosive issue of entitlement reform to achieve meaningful deficit reduction.

“There’s a sense that we don’t want to use too much of our political capital on last year’s budget battle,” said a senior Republican senator. “We just introduced our balanced budget amendment and we want to focus on that, the debt limit and the budget for 2012.

“People want to move on,” said the lawmaker.

“All of us want to make real reductions over the next six months, but we’re much more concerned about real reductions in the debt over the next 60 years,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Republican conference. 

There’s a growing sense among Senate Republicans that their leaders won’t be able to win much more in concessions from the Obama administration in talks over a funding measure covering only the remainder of the fiscal year.

“Now we’re talking about some billions of dollars, our major goal is to deal with saving trillions of dollars over the next 60 years,” Alexander said. “We care about the next six months, we’re most interested in the next 60 years when it comes to debt reduction.”

President Obama’s team has already agreed to cut $33 billion from the 2011 budget, setting spending levels for the year at $74 billion less than what the administration initially proposed.

“I would like to see us cut more out, but it’s very hard to find it without causing cardiac arrest in a lot of people,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

“I do agree the debt ceiling is the more important battle at this point,” said Hatch.

Some Republicans wonder whether it’s worth the political price to insist on the full $61 billion in cuts when that’s only a small fraction of the $1.6 trillion deficit projected for this year.

“I don’t think the administration will do much better than it’s done,” Hatch said of concessions from the White House.

He said the administration and Democrats will “blow whatever reduction we have out of proportion,” costing the GOP political energy that can be used to slow the soaring rate of entitlement spending.

Entitlement spending makes up the bulk of the federal budget.

About 20 percent of the federal budget in 2010, or $708 billion, paid for Social Security, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program accounted for 21 percent of $753 billion of last year’s budget. 

Safety-net programs such as the refundable portion of the earned-income tax and child tax credits comprised another 14 percent, or $482 billion. 

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a founding member of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, said $33 billion in cuts would have little impact on the deficit.

“If we were going to have a $1.65 trillion deficit this years, that means we’ll have a $1.62 trillion deficit. To me that’s a meaningless cut,” Paul said.

Paul said GOP colleagues have not told him they think it’s time to wrap up the debate over 2011 spending levels.

Senate Republicans increasingly think it’s time to turn to the higher priority of curbing the cost growth of entitlement programs. 

One senior GOP senator said, “The real battle for us is the long-term debt.”

Republicans say they’ll have crucial leverage to push for entitlement reforms when Obama asks Congress to increase the debt ceiling sometime between April 15 and May 31.

They will call for a vote on the balanced budget amendment capping government spending at 18 percent of gross domestic product before allowing a vote on the debt-limit increase. 

Senate Republicans worry, however, that it might not be as well-positioned to push for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid reform if they get bogged down for much longer in a bruising battle with Obama over 2011 spending levels.

But GOP lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol are also sensitive to the backlash they might receive from Tea Party-affiliated conservatives if they back off from the $61 billion in cuts passed by the House at the beginning of this year.

About 150 to 200 Tea Party activists held a rally across Constitution Avenue from the Capitol Thursday afternoon to press GOP leaders not to give ground in talks over spending levels for the rest of this year.

A Democratic source briefed on the negotiations between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said GOP leaders are wary of striking a deal while Tea Party activists are revved up.

Boehner has downplayed reports of a tentative deal with the White House and Senate Democrats to set 2011 spending cuts at $33 billion. 

He told House Republican freshmen Thursday afternoon that he has not agreed to a final spending number. He also emphasized he is not looking to shut the government down to win the debate. 

“The majority of the conversation was about how we are not going to shut down the government,” Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.) said of the meeting with Boehner. 

Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) said Thursday a spending deal is at hand but warned that Tea Party activists could derail it.

“Today, Speaker Boehner said, ‘Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to.’ That is a fair and reasonable position to take, he need not publicly confirm the $33 billion number, but as long as both sides keep their heads down and keep working, a deal is in sight,” Schumer said. “We’re right on the doorstep.”

Erik Wasson and Russell Berman contributed to this report.