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House Votes to Cut $60 Billion, Setting Up Budget Clash

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The House early Saturday approved a huge package of spending cuts, slashing more than $60 billion from domestic programs, foreign aid, and even some military projects, as the new Republican majority made good on its pledge to turn the grassroots fervor of the November elections into legislative action to shrink the size and scope of government.

The vote, of 235 to 189, was a victory for the large, boisterous class of fiscally conservative Republican freshmen that is fiercely determined to change the ways of Washington and that forced party leaders to pursue far bigger cuts than originally planned. It set the stage for a standoff with Senate Democrats and the White House that each side has warned could lead to a shutdown of the federal government early next month.

And it marked the opening salvo in what is likely to be a long, bitter clash of philosophical ideas about fiscal policy, as Republicans repudiate the liberal, Keynesian strategies that the Obama administration has relied on to navigate through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

In Washington, the fight in the weeks ahead will focus on budget policy and the looming need to raise the federal debt ceiling. But the push by Republicans for spending cuts and new austerity is already shaking state capitals, including Madison, Wis., and Columbus, Ohio, where labor unions have begun protesting efforts to reduce benefitsand weaken their collective bargaining rights.

The House approved its spending measure in the predawn darkness on Saturday after four days and nights of free-wheeling floor debate — a veritable ultra-marathon of legislating in which hundreds of amendments were put forward. Republican leaders lost votes on some of those amendments, in what they said was a testament to their commitment to allow a more open legislative process than their recent predecessors.

Republicans only seemed to grow more excited as the final vote neared shortly after 4:30 a.m.

“We have a mandate from the American people to cut spending,” declared Representative Judy Biggert, Republican of Illinois.

Immediately after the vote, the House speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio, said in a statement, “This week, for the first time in many years, the People’s House was allowed to work its will — and the result was one of the largest spending cuts in American history.” Mr. Boehner added, “We will not stop here in our efforts to cut spending, not when we’re broke and Washington’s spending binge is making it harder to create jobs.”

Just three Republicans opposed the bill, while 186 Democrats voted unanimously against it.

The Republicans’ plan would quickly impose sharp spending reductions in nearly every area of government through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. But Republicans will not have long to bask in the glory of their win, and their bill has little or no chance of becoming law in its current form.

President Obama and Senate Democrats say the cuts would harm the fragile economic recovery, and the White House had threatened to veto the bill even before it was approved. The Democrats say Mr. Obama’s budget proposal, which calls for a five-year freeze in many spending areas, is a more reasonable approach. But Republicans have rejected it as insufficient.

Time is short. The stopgap measure now financing the government expires on March 4. And with Congress in recess next week, party leaders concede there is not enough time to forge a deal, and that a short-term extension will be needed to avert a shutdown of the government.

But with the rhetoric in the House only growing more strident over the four days of debate, and politically-charged amendments dominating the action on Friday, lawmakers and Washington at large have begun to face the possibility that even a temporary accord will be difficult to achieve.

Mr. Boehner has said he would not agree to a short-term extension without added cuts from spending, which is now being held generally at 2010 levels. Democrats, meanwhile, have not shown any willingness to give ground, apparently betting that Republicans will be held responsible for a shutdown as they were in 1995 during a standoff with the Clinton administration.

The House Democratic leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, late Friday night put forward a temporary extension of the stopgap measure that would maintain expenditures as they are now, generally at 2010 levels, and avert a shutdown through March 31. But Republicans quickly dismissed it.

Democrats, for weeks, have warned that Republicans were risking a shutdown by showing no flexibility in the spending debate.

“The last thing the American people need is for Congressional Republicans or Democrats to draw a line in the sand that hinders keeping the government open,” Ms. Pelosi said at a news conference earlier on Friday. “Closing our government would mean our men and women in uniform wouldn’t receive their paychecks and veterans would lose critical benefits. Seniors wouldn’t receive their Social Security checks and essential functions from food safety inspection to airport security could come to a halt.”

Aides to the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, sought to play down the possibility of a stalemate that would shutter the government but accused Democrats of rooting for that outcome.

"CHEERING FOR A SHUTDOWN"

“Instead of cheering for a shutdown, Senate Democrats should join their Republican colleagues in doing the hard work of cutting spending,” a spokesman for Mr. McConnell, Don Stewart, said on Friday.

But Mr. McConnell showed no willingness to consider Ms. Pelosi’s proposed temporary extension. “Freezing in place the current unsustainable spending levels is simply unacceptable,” he said in a statement.

Even without a government shutdown, there were warnings that the Republican cuts could cripple federal agencies. The Securities and Exchange Commission, for instance, charged with carrying out a sweeping new financial regulation law, will end up with $25 million less than last year, which was before the law was adopted.

In a letter to employees on Thursday, the Social Security Administration warned of potential furloughs “given the potential of reduced Congressional appropriations for the remainder of the fiscal year.”

The cuts even hit some programs that had support among Republican leaders, including an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The House voted to cancel the engine, achieving $450 million in short-term savings.

The Republicans who opposed the spending package were Representatives John Campbell of California and Jeff Flake of Arizona, both of whom had advocated for even bigger reductions, and Representative Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, who often disagrees with his party.

Democrats on Friday suggested that even if Republican leaders want to avoid a shutdown, Mr. Boehner might not be able to control his rank and file, particularly the conservative freshmen who successfully led the charge for even bigger spending reductions than Republican leaders initially proposed.

Up to the very end, the Republican Study Committee, a conservative bloc, continued to push for even bigger cuts, putting forward an amendment on Friday to slice $22 billion more. That amendment was defeated, as senior Republicans, including the majority leader, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, and veteran members of the Appropriations Committee, teamed up with Democrats to hit the brakes.

But flush with enthusiasm on the fourth long day of debate, House Republicans on Friday easily approved amendments to the spending package that would deny government financing for Planned Parenthood, block money for the Democrats’ big health care overhaul and bar new regulation of certain greenhouse gases.

The amendment to deny government funds to Planned Parenthoodwas put forward by Representative Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana. It was approved by a vote of 240 to 185.

Ms. Pelosi, who is a supporter of abortion rights, angrily denounced the vote as a camouflaged effort by Republicans to prevent Americans from engaging in family planning, which she said would actually undermine the Republicans’ larger goal by leading to an increase in elective abortions.

“Perhaps we have to have a lesson in the birds and the bees around here for them to understand that,” Ms. Pelosi said at a news conference. Mr. Pence, in a statement, proclaimed a victory for opponents of abortion. “This afternoon’s vote was a victory for taxpayers and a victory for life,” he said.

There were at least six different amendments approved to block federal agencies from implementing the health care law or crucial components of the law.

For Republican freshmen, however, there was a potentially sobering lesson about American democracy to be learned from the health care law that they hate so much: after countless hours of drafting and floor debate, the health care bill that Mr. Obama signed last year was the one written and approved by the Senate.

In much the same way, the spending measure being debated so feverishly on the House floor has virtually no chance of being enacted into law, no matter how big a victory celebration Republicans hold.

Just as the Senate ultimately controlled the health care debate, so too will it control crucial negotiations in the current spending fight. Senate Republicans have said they support the overall goals of their House counterparts but have not committed to making identical cuts, and Democrats have a majority in the chamber.

In an understated reminder of his chamber’s role in the process, Senator Daniel K. Inouye, Democrat of Hawaii and chairman of the Appropriations Committee, issued a statement expressing a desire for compromise.

“It is my sincere hope that all the parties will remain reasonable as we seek to fund the federal government for the remainder of the fiscal year,” he said. “Neither house of Congress is in a position to dictate terms to the other, so I remain hopeful that we will come to a sensible accommodation.”