When GOP Takes Over House, Budget Battle Begins
The collapse of a government-wide spending package in the final days of this Congressional session sets up a politically charged fiscal showdown early next year, testing the determination of Republicans about to take over the House with promises to slash an array of domestic programs.
As Congress struggled to assemble a stopgap measure to finance the government at least into the first months of 2011, House and Senate Republicans on Friday hailed their ability to derail a $1.2 trillion spending measure put forward by Senate Democrats, and promised to use their new Congressional muscle to respond to public demands to shrink government.
“Beginning in January, the House is going to become the outpost in Washington for the American people and their desire for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government,” said Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the incoming House speaker.
“I will tell you,” he added, “we are going to cut spending.”
With the lame-duck session entering its final days, there was an air of partisan chaos on Capitol Hill as both parties scored important legislative victories and events changed on an almost hour-to-hour basis as the end of Democratic control of the House approached.
Both President Obama and Congressional Republicans claimed credit for the package of tax cuts and unemployment pay the president signed into law Friday. Democrats also appeared poised to repeal the ban on gay and lesbian troops serving openly in the military, a long-sought goal of the party and its progressive constituency.
The House advanced a major Pentagon policy measure that had previously been tied up in the fight over the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. At the same time, a major immigration measure championed by Democrats and the White House seemed headed toward defeat as early as Saturday.
Republicans celebrated their blockade of the spending package, which Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, had to abandon after Republicans denied him the handful of votes from their side of the aisle that he was counting on to break a filibuster.
Republicans said their determination to kill the omnibus spending package even when top party lawmakers had inserted pet spending projects demonstrated that they were heeding the fervor of voters who were fed up with giant spending measures slipping through Congress in the final hours.
“The defeat of the omnibus should reassure every American that their voice is making a difference in Washington,” said Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican and an outspoken foe of increased federal spending.
But the collapse of the Senate measure, which like its House counterpart would have financed government agencies through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, means Republicans could begin the new Congress with an immediate need to resolve the spending stalemate.
With the Senate making slow progress toward a stopgap measure, the House on Friday approved a plan to keep the government open through Tuesday and the Senate later followed suit to prevent a government shutdown after Saturday.
Aides said that behind closed doors, White House officials and some Democratic lawmakers were still trying to strike a deal to finance the government through September. But the officials said it was much more likely that government financing would be extended only into February or March.
Republicans say that timeline will allow them to quickly put their stamp on the budget for the current fiscal year, and Mr. Boehner and his leadership team have vowed to eliminate about $100 billion in spending out of about $400 billion in domestic programs.
Both sides say reaching that goal will mean very difficult choices and Democrats, promising to resist Republican efforts, say Republicans may find it easier to talk about cutting than actually doing it.
“They have been really good about talking about the need to cut this and cut that, but they are never specific,” said Representative James P. McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts. “I think it is going to be tough.”
The 2011 spending fight could be complicated by the need to raise the federal debt limit to avoid a federal default — a vote that many new Republican lawmakers have indicated they would not make.
Republicans say the debt limit vote could also present an opportunity, allowing them to tie a package of spending reductions to the debt increase to make it more palatable.
Another complicating factor is that since Democrats retain control of the Senate, House Republicans must reconcile their spending proposals with those crafted by the Senate Appropriations Committee under the leadership of Senator Daniel K. Inouye, Democrat of Hawaii. Senator Inouye is unlikely to agree easily to Republican spending cuts, creating a climate for gridlock as the two parties face off.
On Friday, Mr. Inouye chastised Congress for jettisoning the spending package crafted by his committee, saying that simply extending current funding levels left the government on autopilot and could lead to disruptions. He said it also left too much discretion for determining spending priorities to the executive branch.
“And in two months we will find ourselves having to pass another 2,000-page bill that will cost more than $1 trillion or once again abdicate our authority to the Obama administration to determine how our taxpayer funds should be spent,” he said.
Mr. Boehner has made changing the culture of the Appropriations Committee a top interest of the new Republican majority, pressing new leaders of the panel to turn it into a center for budget cutting and stocking it with a few anti-spending advocates.
On Friday, he indicated that he would prefer that Republicans next year break up the enormous spending package that died in the Senate and pass a dozen spending bills individually to allow for better scrutiny — a process that could consume considerable time and subject the measures to multiple attacks on the floor.
“I do not believe that having 2,000-page bills on the House floor serves anyone’s best interests, not the House, not for the members and certainly not for the American people,” Mr. Boehner said.
Aides to Mr. Boehner later said the speaker-designate was referring to his desire to have an orderly appropriations process later in 2011 and was not referring to the spending package Republicans would have to quickly assemble in the opening weeks of the new Congress.
Lawmakers on both sides were running out of energy and patience as the session dragged on with no certain conclusion in sight. Even House Democrats who would be turning over control to Republicans seemed ready to call it quits.
“A lot of us just want to go home,” said Representative John B. Larson of Connecticut, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.