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.