By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2011; 12:00 AM
Congressional conservatives on Thursday demanded far more dramatic reductions in government spending than House GOP leaders have recently proposed, in the first sign of a fissure between old-guard Republicans and tea-party-backed newcomers.
Members of the conservative Republican Study Committee said the GOP must keep its campaign pledge to immediately slice at least $100 billion from non-defense programs, an effort that would require lawmakers to reduce funding for most federal agencies by a third over the next seven months. And the group called for even deeper cuts over the next decade to return non-defense spending to 2006 levels.
"One hundred billion dollars is the number the American people heard last fall. And, frankly, when you look at it in the context that there's a $14 trillion debt, it seems to me we should be able to find $100 billion," said Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), chairman of the study committee, a group of economic and social conservatives whose ranks have swelled since the GOP won back control of the House in the November midterm elections.
Reducing the size of the government is the top priority of many lawmakers who were swept into Congress last fall on a tide of public anger about the rising national debt and federal spending on the economy. The dispute over spending cuts is the first show of force by this new contingent and suggests that compromise with Democrats on fiscal issues could prove extraordinarily difficult.
With 165 members - including 73 freshmen, many of them elected with tea party support - the study committee represents more than two-thirds of House Republicans. Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) will be under great pressure to meet their demands, even though his top budget lieutenant has backed away from the $100 billion pledge since taking office this month, saying it would be too hard to meet that goal with so much of the fiscal year gone.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who is empowered by new House rules to unilaterally set a limit on spending, has said he plans to direct appropriators to slice only about $60 billion from this year's budget. The House Appropriations Committee is identifying cuts at that level.
But dissatisfaction with that approach erupted Wednesday, when the House Rules Committee began considering a largely symbolic measure aimed at reaffirming the commitment to reduce spending. Freshman Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) insisted on changing the language to require faster and deeper cuts than Ryan has proposed. The full House is set to vote on the measure Tuesday, hours before President Obama delivers his State of the Union address.
Whatever happens in the House, such deep reductions are unlikely to win approval in the Senate, where Democrats are still in charge.
Ryan did not respond to calls Thursday. A Boehner spokesman declined to take sides, saying the GOP will iron out its differences in the days ahead.
"Our immediate goal is to cut spending to pre-bailout, pre-stimulus levels. That's what we pledged, and that's what we'll fight for," said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel. "But that will be the beginning, not the end, of our efforts to cut spending and create jobs - and we appreciate every member's input."
Republican leaders made spending cuts a central tenet of the fall campaign, promising to slash non-defense programs to 2008 levels. At the time, they said that would mean cutting more than $100 billion from Obama's fiscal 2011 budget request. But Democrats never funded that request, instead setting spending at a lower level in a temporary resolution that will fund the government through March 4.
Republicans are at work on a new resolution to fund the government through the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Ryan's approach would require cuts of about 15 percent at agencies other than the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security. The Republican Study Committee plan, by contrast, would reduce most agency budgets by about 30 percent.
According to Democratic estimates, cuts of that magnitude - if applied across the board - would require the Justice Department to fire 4,000 FBI agents and 1,500 agents at the Drug Enforcement Administration. The federal prison system would have to fire 5,700 correctional officers, the Agriculture Department would have to cut about 3,000 food safety inspectors, and the Head Start early-childhood education program would be forced to cut about 389,000 children from its rolls.
The study committee's proposal focuses instead on more palatable cuts, such as a plan to rescind unspent money from the 2009 economic stimulus package. The group estimates that would save $45 billion, though other congressional estimates put the figure as low as $3 billion.
The committee's proposal also would prohibit federal money from being spent on any provision of Obama's health-care overhaul or its defense in court in 2011. The House voted this week to repeal the law, which Republicans consider an unacceptable government intrusion into the private health-care system.
In addition to its demand for immediate reductions, the study committee recommended cutting more than $2.5 trillion in spending over the next decade by firing 15 percent of the federal workforce and returning to 2006 spending levels for non-defense agencies starting in 2012.
The plan targets a long list of programs for elimination, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, Amtrak and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
In addition, the plan proposes to cut off payments to the District - about $210 million a year - that compensate for burdens placed on the city by the federal government, such as the need for an extra police presence during major political events, and revenue lost because vast tracts of federal land are not taxed. It would also eliminate a $150 million repair budget approved for the Washington area's Metro system.
But the list adds up to a tiny fraction of the total the study committee is looking to cut. Jim Horney, a budget analyst at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said Republicans would have to cut most agencies by more than 40 percent over the next decade to meet the committee's goals.
At a noon news conference, committee members - including three freshman Republicans - said they are up to the task.
"I think most freshmen feel like I do, that we've got to do some big, big things," said Rep. Joe Walsh (Ill.), a tea party favorite from Chicago's northern suburbs. "If we don't do something like this, the Republican Party is going to be in trouble electorally in the next two years. The voters sent us here to do this."