By Alexander Bolton - 11/06/11 09:20 AM EST
The debate over spending among Republicans in Congress has become so intense that one Senate Republican leader has started wearing a flak jacket to meetings.
Public attention has focused on the deficit-reduction supercommittee’s secret deliberations on cutting mandatory spending, which includes Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
But intra-party arguments over discretionary spending have broken out in recent weeks as lawmakers turn to the task of passing government funding bills for next year.
He said he would don the protective gear after Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), an outspoken conservative, blasted him in a meeting for arguing that Congress had already made substantial reductions in discretionary spending.
The clash wasn’t fueled by personal animosity, as Alexander and Coburn have a good relationship. But there is a serious policy disagreement between the two over whether to cut more from the discretionary side of the spending ledger.
Alexander, a member of the Appropriations Committee, made a presentation to the conference highlighting cuts Congress has already made to discretionary spending.
He noted the growth rate of discretionary spending had been reduced to less than the rate of inflation over the next 10 years and urged his colleagues to focus on entitlement cuts instead, according to sources familiar with the meeting.
Coburn objected heatedly. He argued that slowing the rate of discretionary spending growth is not the same as cutting spending, according to sources. Senate aides say that conservatives including Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) agree with Coburn’s point of view.
“If we’re serious about it, we have to change the way we talk about things in D.C.,” said a Senate Republican aide who supports Coburn’s argument. “We can’t talk about cuts but they’re not cuts, they’re slowing of growth. It’s slowing the amount of gas we’re pouring on the fire.”
The group of conservatives backing Coburn, which includes members of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, wants deeper cuts to discretionary spending in addition to entitlement reforms.
Alexander, however, says it’s more important to tackle mandatory spending, which he says accounts for 55 percent of the budget, and is growing at three to four times the rate of inflation. These programs grow automatically and their spending levels are not subject to the annual appropriations bills.
A related policy dispute flared up Tuesday when Lee offered a motion to send an annual spending package back to the Appropriations Committee to cut more discretionary spending.
The bill covering the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, spends more money compared to fiscal year 2011. This is because the cost of mandatory programs under its jurisdiction had grown.
If passed, Lee’s motion would have instructed the Appropriations Committee to cut discretionary funds to make up for the growth of mandatory spending in the bill.
Six Republican members of the committee, including Alexander, voted against the motion, which failed.
A Senate GOP aide argued that since Republicans could not pass budget plans calling for significant cuts, they should at least try to stop the growth of spending.
An internecine fight over discretionary spending is raging in the House as well. Conservatives in the lower chamber are irate over emergency spending attached to appropriations measures.
Members of the conservative Republican Study Committee chewed out House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) at a private meeting this past week, according to participants.
The conservatives gave Cantor an earful over the $7 billion to $11 billion they expect to be added to the appropriations measures. The extra funding does not count against the $1.043 trillion spending cap congressional leaders agreed to in August because it has an “emergency” designation.
Tea Party-affiliated House conservatives had to be cajoled to support the August deal to raise the debt limit, as they thought its $1.043 trillion spending cap was too high. Now they are facing the prospect of passing appropriations bills that would total $1.050 trillion or more because of added emergency spending.
One conservative House GOP lawmaker said there’s a good chance that the total cost of the fiscal year 2012 spending bills would exceed the 2011 level.
“How are 87 freshmen going to be able to go back to their districts and say they made a difference?” said the disgruntled lawmaker.
The fight has taken place mostly behind closed doors. Ben Veghte, a spokesman for Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), chairman of the budget and spending task force for the Republican Study Committee, said he was not aware of the emergency-spending issue. He declined to make his boss available for an interview and declined to provide further information.
A fight over discretionary spending levels in the House has derailed legislation funding the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services.
Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), chairman of the Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, had to scrap a mark-up of the bill after two Republicans on the panel revolted over a plan to add $12 billion in funding to its bottom line.
Reps. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) threatened to sink the measure because of the controversial increase. Their defections would have stopped the legislation because Republicans control eight seats on the subcommittee and the Democrats have five.
Conservative lawmakers say that House GOP leaders promised in August to move appropriations bills at spending levels set by the budget from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). That promise appeared to evaporate, however, when they learned the details of the Labor, HHS spending bill.
The intra-Republican battle over discretionary spending levels could become a bigger headache for Rehberg, who is running for Senate in Montana. If conservative activists catch wind of an attempt to plus up spending in the Labor HHS bill, it could anger members of his party’s base at home.
This article was revised on Nov. 7 at 10:30 a.m.