By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 10:21 PM
House Republicans pledged Thursday to slice more than $32 billion from agency budgets over the next few months, firing the opening shot in a battle over government spending that is likely to dominate debate heading into the 2012 presidential campaign.
The figure, announced by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), represents an unprecedented rollback that would force some domestic agencies to immediately slash spending by as much as 20 percent, independent budget analysts said.
Democrats immediately vowed to fight the proposal, calling it a short-sighted plan that would kill many critical government services and slow the burgeoning economic recovery. But a group of conservative Republicans is demanding even deeper cuts and vowing to offer a plan to slash $100 billion from agency budgets when House leaders bring a spending bill to the floor Feb. 14.
"Washington's spending spree is over," Ryan said in a statement. "As House Republicans pledged - and voted to affirm on the House floor last week - the spending limits will restore sanity to a broken budget process and return spending for domestic government agencies to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels."
The GOP proposal marks the first step in what promises to be an unusually complicated and contentious budget season, with much at stake for both parties. President Obama has vowed to fight for new investments aimed at combating a 9.4 percent unemployment rate, and Republicans are looking to make good on their campaign promise to rein in explosive growth in spending since he took office two years ago.
Republicans control the House; Democrats control the Senate. And with the government operating under a temporary funding resolution that expires March 4, both parties risk triggering a shutdown unless they can agree on a spending bill to pay for operations through the rest of the fiscal year, which ends in September.
New rules adopted by the House last month give Ryan unilateral authority to set spending limits in that bill. On Thursday, Ryan said he would cap total appropriations at $1.055 trillion - $74 billion less than the budget request Obama submitted to Congress last year and $32 billion less than the level at which lawmakers agreed to maintain spending.
Under the GOP plan, agencies related to national security - including the Pentagon and the departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs - would get a slight bump in funding, receiving an extra $8 billion compared with current levels.
Domestic agencies, however, would absorb a deep hit, in excess of $40 billion, Ryan said. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), who is in charge of drafting the spending measure, said Thursday that the cuts would fall most heavily on transportation and housing programs; agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration; commerce, justice and science programs; and financial services. Labor, health and education programs would face much smaller reductions, as would state and foreign operations.
Aides said Rogers plans to unveil specific cuts late next week. "It is my intention - and that of my Committee - to craft a responsible, judicious [budget] that will significantly reduce government spending, begin to get our nation's finances in order so that the economy can thrive, and provide essential resources for our national security," he said in a statement.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) quickly dismissed the GOP plan as "unworkable" and warned that lawmakers could be headed toward a government shutdown. "Cooler heads should prevail," Reid said.
As the parties spar over immediate spending cuts, they are also at work on a longer-term budget for the fiscal year that begins in October. Obama plans to unveil his budget request Feb. 14.
On Thursday, White House budget director Jacob J. Lew traveled to Capitol Hill to brief Senate Democrats on the president's proposal and to hear from lawmakers who want the president to support a multi-year blueprint for deficit-reduction, such as the one developed by a bipartisan fiscal commission Obama appointed last year.
"There are different points of view about how to do it," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), one of the leading advocates of deficit reduction. But, he said, there's broad agreement among Democrats that "now is the time to start."
In his recent State of the Union address, Obama declined to endorse any of the fiscal commission's proposals, such as raising the retirement age for Social Security recipients or reducing cherished tax breaks such as the deduction for mortgage interest claimed by many homeowners. Such policy changes would be politically painful, and administration officials say the president is not inclined to endorse a specific deficit-reduction plan until Republicans have made their intentions clear.
But some Democrats fear the effort will languish without presidential leadership.
After the lunchtime meeting, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber, said Lew "heard some sentiments expressed in there that the White House needs to hear, and I think that he's going to have a tough challenge putting together a credible effort to reduce spending and reduce the deficit."
Staff writers Paul Kane and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.