In a rare early morning weekend vote, the House approved an aggressive plan Saturday to eliminate dozens of federal programs and offices while slashing agency budgets by as much as 40 percent, drawing out more than $60 billion in deficit savings.
Setting up a showdown early next month with President Obama and Senate Democrats, House Republicans pushed the legislation through after a marathon debate capped off by an all-night session Friday that spilled into Saturday morning. During the bleary-eyed final roll call at 4:35 a.m., 235 Republicans were joined by no Democrats in support of dramatic spending reductions that they said were needed to address a soaring annual deficit of $1.6 trillion; 189 Democrats -- as well as three Republicans -- opposed it, accusing Republicans of writing the bill with a “double meat ax.”
The three Republicans voting against the measure were Reps. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Walter Jones (N.C.) and John Campbell (Calif.).
For Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), it marked an early political victory as his newly empowered GOP troops lived up to a 2010 campaign pledge to trim spending levels to those before the 2008 financial crisis caused an unprecedented level of government spending and intervention into the private economy.
“It’s democracy in action,” Boehner said in an impromptu, triumphal press conference off the House floor just past 9 p.m. Friday.
Yet Boehner’s victory could prove ephemeral as he faces staunch opposition from Obama, who vowed to veto the bill, and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who declared it “draconian.”
The Senate is expected to take up its version of the spending measure the first week of March, just before a March 4 deadline for when the current funding resolution expires. With Democrats pushing to keep spending at 2010 levels for the remainder of this year, the two sides begin a grueling negotiation process more than $61 billion apart.
That gulf grew further Friday when Republicans approved a series of measures that would provide narrow savings but impose sharp policy prescriptions, including the abolition of any federal funding going to Planned Parenthood and the restriction of any funds going toward the implementation of Obama’s health-care law.
The threat of a government shutdown looms if the sides cannot agree on funding levels by then, and they are already jockeying over how to draft a very short-term spending bill to keep the government open in March while the broader talks continue for the rest of fiscal year 2011, which ends Sept. 30. This debate is the first of several showdowns between the resurgent House Republicans and the Democratically-controlled Senate, including a pending dispute later this spring over Obama’s wish to raise the federal debt limit above the current ceiling of $14.3 trillion as Republicans demand budgetary reforms that would restrain government spending.
“It’s going to be fascinating here over the next few weeks and months as we work our way through this. But these are going to be the most important two, three, four months that we have seen in this town in decades,” Boehner said. “It’s all one fight.”
Democrats accused Boehner of caving in to the demands from his conservative flank, which opposed an initial spending-cut package that was roughly half the size of the final draft. “They’re now driven by an arbitrary number picked out of the air because it sounded good,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said of campaign pledge, which is $100 billion lower than Obama’s proposed 2011 budget that was never enacted. Compared to 2010 levels, the spending cuts represent more than $61 billion in real savings, what would be the largest rescission of federal funds since the conclusion of World War II.
“A lot of them don’t know the ramifications in their own communities of what they’re doing,” Hoyer said in an interview.
If enacted as is, the GOP plan would eliminate numerous programs, including the Corporation for National Service, which runs the Americorps program; it would terminate federal funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It would cut $600 million from border security and immigration programs. It would eliminate nearly $80 million for the District and slash funding for the cleanup of Chesapeake Bay.
Obama’s own staff were targeted for more than $120 million in reductions from last year, including the elimination of funds for high-level advisers who serve as “czars” for policy areas such as climate change and executive compensation for corporations that received federal bailout funds.
Democrats tried to impart political pressure on Republicans for cutting so deeply into the federal government, particularly the 87 GOP freshmen who vaulted Boehner into the speaker’s chair with their November victories. On Friday, before the final vote, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee accused Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.) of abandoning her local economy because the Republican plan would eliminate an Energy Department loan guarantee program that could impede a biomass project employing 80 people in her district north of Manhattan. “Hayworth ran on the promise of job creation, but in one of her first acts in Congress she is pushing a budget that will put some of her constituents out of work,” the DCCC said.
It was to no avail. Hayworth voted for the broad spending cuts.
Indeed, the freshman class has emerged as a critical bloc of votes that could prove decisive on the final negotiations over the spending bill, the debt limit vote later in the spring and many other key issues. Roughly half have never held public office before, so leadership does not yet know how the newcomers will react if Boehner and other congressional Republican leaders negotiated a compromise that does not cut as much spending as the House just approved.
Asked where the spending legislation was headed next, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a 12-year veteran, shook his head in wonderment and said the freshmen could hold the key. “I have no idea. Nobody really knows where this is going from here,” said Simpson, who helped craft the $61 billion in cuts as a member of the Appropriations Committee.
Boehner reveled Friday night in both the impending victory and the unusually open process that stretched through most of the week, allowing hundreds of amendments to be proposed and nearly 150 of them to receive votes. He took a victory lap through the lobby off the chamber floor and engaged reporters in an unplanned 25-minute question-and-answer session, contending the wide-open process produced a “real debate” that stood in stark contrast to “watching 20 years of leaders tighten down the process, tighten down the process, tighten down the process.”
“I’m proud of this vote,” he said.