Less than a year after reaching a budget agreement with President Barack Obama, House Republican leaders now seem likely to walk away from it under pressure from Tea Party-backed conservatives eager to show voters they're serious about shrinking the government.
Democrats and the White House are crying foul and many GOP veterans warn it will produce gridlock later, when the House turns to spending bills setting agency budgets for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
GOP leaders including Speaker John Boehner of Ohio were top architects of last summer's budget pact, which traded a $2 trillion-plus increase in the government's borrowing cap for a decade's worth of cuts to agency operating budgets passed annually by Congress and the promise of more cuts by a bipartisan deficit "supercommittee."
But the supercommittee deadlocked, adding to the frustration among many Republicans that they haven't done enough to cut spending or curb deficits that still exceed $1 trillion a year. Many Republicans are intent on using an upcoming debate over the budget to demonstrate their bona fides to voters — especially core conservative supporters they're counting on to turn out in large numbers to maintain the GOP's majority in the House.
"There is a lot of pent-up demand from our members to show the American people a way forward to fiscal sanity. We can't continue to have budget deficits of over a trillion dollars a year," Boehner said Tuesday. "This is not sustainable. So our members want to show the American people a way forward, and they will."
At issue is the arcane way Congress does its annual budget. First comes a debate on a sweeping but nonbinding document that's called a budget resolution. It sets the broad parameters for follow-up legislation on spending and taxes and is seen as a statement of party principles, even though its broader goals usually go unimplemented.
The congressional budget sets the annual overall "cap" on the spending bills passed by Congress later each year. Last summer's hard-fought budget pact established 10 years' worth of new, stringent caps, including a $1.047 trillion target for the upcoming 2013 budget year that would basically freeze or force cuts in most agencies.
In the eyes of Democrats, the White House and many Republicans, a deal's a deal — the $1.047 trillion agency spending cap for fiscal 2013 should govern the upcoming round of spending bills.
"If House Republicans cave to their extreme base and renege on the bipartisan deal we struck less than a year ago then I would have a lot of trouble believing they're capable of making any new bipartisan deals anytime soon," Sen. Patty Murray, D.-Wash., said. "House Republicans are playing with fire here, and I urge them to stick to the budget levels we already agreed to and not threaten another government shutdown later in the year."
A shutdown is unlikely, but a disagreement between House and Senate over the spending cap probably means that few if any of the follow-up spending bills will be enacted before Congress leaves Washington this fall for the elections.
"I think that the $1.047 trillion number that was the crux of the bill last year is the right number," House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R.-Ky., said. "It needs to be a reasonable number that will allow us to pass these bills, which by all accounts will require some bipartisanship."
A large contingent of Republicans, however, never supported the underlying debt and budget deal and they won't support a GOP budget plan that affirms it.
"The cap is a ceiling, not a floor. I think there are a lot of people in my conference that would not vote for it at $1.047 trillion just because of the frustration of that," said Rep. James Lankford, R.-Okla. "We have got to address more aggressively the debt issue."
Added Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R.-S.C., "We're just trying to argue that we're really serious about spending less money."
Reaching agreement between GOP old-timers like Rogers and dozens of Tea Party-backed freshman is proving elusive, however. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R.-Va., is among those trying to referee the battle and is slated to meet with budget panel Republicans on Thursday in hopes of sparking a compromise.
A key wrinkle this year is that because the deficit supercommittee failed to agree on at least $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over the coming decade, a round of automatic across-the-board spending cuts will kick in next January. Much of the reasoning behind lowering the caps is that the automatic cuts — called a sequester — would effectively reduce the $1.047 trillion cap by almost $100 billion anyway.
The White House says Republicans should return to the drawing board and look at tax increases and other accounts rather than further cuts to domestic programs like education, homeland security, community development grants and housing subsidies for the poor.
"What Congress should be doing is coming up with a balanced package of deficit reduction that asks all to shoulder their fair share, not pursuing deeper cuts to education, medical research, food safety and other critical areas," said Moira Mack, a spokeswoman for the White House Budget Office. "If Republicans rewrite the caps, then it would be breaking the budget deal."
The potential magnitude of the looming cuts has many pragmatic-minded Republicans on the Appropriations Committee also pushing back. They say that after the Pentagon, homeland security, veterans programs and law enforcement accounts are protected from cuts, domestic programs like education, NASA and the IRS would have to absorb crippling cuts.
"We made a deal at $1.047 trillion and my view is it should be $1.047 trillion," said Rep. Steve LaTourette, R.-Ohio. "You're looking at, in some of these appropriations, a 50 percent cut over two years. I don't see how you write bills."