Battle begins on GOP cuts

After nearly two years of vowing to slash government spending, all eyes are on Republicans as their first cuts come to the House floor. There, defeated Democrats will be background noise as the budget debate between leadership Republicans and Tea Party-backed freshmen unfolds, a debut of the party’s Rand Paul/Paul Ryan problem. Just as Rep. Ryan (R-Wis.), House Budget Committee chairman, introduced his plan for the largest discretionary cuts in the history of the Congress, Sen. Paul (R-Ky.) — a freshman conservative as pure as the Tea Party could brew — has introduced his own bill, which cuts more than five times as much in the opening salvo of an ongoing battle that is likely to dog and define the GOP through the year, the presidential nominating contest, the 2012 election and beyond.

The tension between newcomers and old-timers over how to cut the deficit has stayed behind closed doors for months. House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and other GOP leaders have managed to keep freshman declarations about voting against raising the debt ceiling to a minimum. The first spending bill is just another continuing resolution, leaders repeatedly point out, funding for government operations for fiscal 2011, five months of which is gone. And though the continuing resolution only cuts $32 billion, despite a campaign promise of $100 billion, the still-steep reductions have been prorated to a seven-month fiscal year. Still to come are more spending reductions, not only when the debt-ceiling debate arises, but also when House Republicans present their own budget for fiscal 2012. 

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Paul’s budget, which he called “modest” in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, would cut $500 billion. The conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) in the House also proposed more than $100 billion in cuts for this year. But Republican leaders are seeking cuts that can pass both chambers and be signed into law. They plan an open process in the House that will “let a thousand flowers bloom,” allowing freshmen and RSC members to bring any spending reductions to the floor.

“It’s very good to be in a position where we’re talking about how much to cut,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). “This is the settling-in, the growing pains of handling the majority with lots of new dynamic people and hard-charging budget hawks and conservatives who know if not for the Tea Party and the issue of reducing spending that they would not be in Congress. So this is our settling-in process, where we’re all trying to figure out what our stride is, and how to work with each other. But again, it’s a good issue to have because we’re talking about how much to cut as opposed to how much stimulus to spend.”

Along the way, Republicans say they expect the freshmen to divide into two camps: those who realize they cannot support every cut, and those in the Paul camp who don’t care about getting reelected. One GOP member in leadership said he expects freshman members will soon realize that cutting discretionary but not entitlement spending can lead to a constituent backlash without the political win of real deficit reduction. “Despite what everyone says, there isn’t that much fat in the budget. Maybe a lot of these programs we couldn’t afford when they started, but they’re hard to undo,” he said. “These issues are not as clear as they appeared to be a few months ago.”

Specific cuts are sure to make things awfully clear, which is why Republicans who have seen many a budget battle say the first round on the CR is actually likely to decrease defections for the coming fights, which will matter far more.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.