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GOP-led House approves battery of spending cuts

Tribune Washington Bureau

The House has approved a sweeping package of budget cuts that, if enacted, would shrink the federal government’s role in American life, curtailing its involvement in healthcare, social services, environmental regulation, child care and research.

The bill, approved 235-189 Saturday with overwhelming Republican support and over united Democratic opposition, would reduce federal spending by more than $60 billion over the next seven months. It represents the completion of the top objective of the new Republican majority and its emboldened wing of budget hawks and government critics.

But the vote, coming after 4:30 a.m. Eastern time following an all-night session, set the House on a collision course with Senate Democrats and the Obama administration. Both camps have dismissed the House package as extreme, especially with the economy still on such uncertain footing.

Without a spending agreement approved by all sides, funding for the government will expire March 4. A political confrontation could end in a government shutdown in as little as two weeks.

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In passing the package, House supporters said they were carrying out the will of the voters who sent nearly 100 new Republicans to Washington in November. They claimed to be taking the lead on the painful choices necessary to reverse course on a surge in federal spending that has put the deficit at $1.5 trillion.

However, Democrats charged that Republicans were using the budget as an excuse to eliminate or cripple government services they dislike, such as the healthcare law and climate change research and regulation.

The debate concerns government funding for the remaining months in the 2011 fiscal year. Later this year, lawmakers will battle over President Obama’s proposed $3.7-trillion budget for fiscal 2012.

The 2011 GOP cuts scarcely dent the federal deficit, but touch nearly every federal budget category not considered defense or “entitlement” spending. The bill would reduce funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by one-third, slash aid to poor women and children and cut support for NASA.

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Medical research at the National Institutes of Health would be curbed, along with funds that help low-income families heat their homes. In all, the bill would eliminate 150 federal programs, Republicans said.

The spending cut package is historic in its size as well as its scope. It is many times the size of the cuts passed by the House in 1995, when Republicans led by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich sought to reduce non-defense discretionary spending by roughly 5%. The package debated Friday would cut about 15%.

Then-President Bill Clinton vetoed the 1995 bill, setting up the standoff that led to a series of government shutdowns months later.

This year’s measure was approved after a nearly round-the-clock voting spree that spanned three days -- a result of House Speaker John Boehner’s promise to allow for a more open debate and deliberation in the House. Nearly 600 amendments were proposed, most seeking further spending cuts and restrictions on funding for various operations.

Examples of GOP targets included implementation of Obama’s healthcare bill, EPA regulation of greenhouse gases and Planned Parenthood.

The late changes made the final size of the package difficult to measure. But as the scope of the proposed 2011 cuts widened, the Social Security Administration and other government agencies said there would be at least temporary job losses if the cuts are enacted into law.

Other departments, including the Department of Homeland Security, Internal Revenue Service and National Labor Relations Board, also said the cuts would have adverse effects. Officials warned of a backlog in their ability to provide services.

“The quickest way to achieve savings, if you have to do it very fast, is cutting off paychecks,” said Robert Bixby, a budget hawk and executive director of the Concord Coalition, who favors a slower approach. “It’s the easiest way to do it.”

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Next week both chambers will take a weeklong recess that will sharply limit the time available to avoid a potential shutdown. When the two sides return to work, they will have a maximum of just five days -- and probably fewer, given the usual legislative workweek -- to resolve deep differences and put a new spending plan in place for the remainder of the year.

Even the option of a stopgap measure that could temporarily fund the government for a few weeks until the impasse can be resolved now appears off the table as Republican leaders refuse to bend.

Each side has tried to position the other to take the blame if the standoff results in shuttered government offices affecting Americans across the nation.

“We don’t want to do that; we hope our Republican colleagues don’t want to do it,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a leader of House Democrats. “But if the posture they take is ‘our way or no way,’ it’s possible that will happen.”

Feelings have hardened over the weeklong debate. Earlier, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) dismissed concerns that the spending cuts would eliminate programs that help employ thousands of Americans, saying that if jobs are lost, “so be it.”

As the debate over this year’s budget stretched on for another day and night, the exercise helped to define both parties. The day’s events also revealed a persistent divide within the ranks of House Republicans. Boehner allowed a free-wheeling debate, which exposed deep rifts between his emboldened conservative wing and other members.

The conservative flank of the GOP lost one pivotal vote to reduce government funding to 2008 levels, as many of them wanted. Veteran Republican leaders admonished the leading budget cutters for pushing the additional $22 billion in cuts, saying they went too far.

Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) echoed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s concern that cuts in global aid programs could threaten national security.

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The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), said the conservatives’ proposal “hits everything indiscriminately in a heavy-handed way.”

“We were elected to make choices, not run on auto-pilot,” he said.

Republicans approved a measure offered by Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) that would prohibit federal funds for Planned Parenthood. The group already is prohibited from using federal grants in providing abortion services. Sen. Barbara Boxer called the amendment “an extreme attack on women’s health.”

A full-scale attack on the healthcare overhaul law advanced as Republicans approved several measures that had the effect of preventing the law from taking effect. Republicans have pledged to dismantle the healthcare law, a key demand of the “tea party” movement.

In a series of votes Friday, Republicans approved measures to block funding, including one that would bar salaries for government workers implementing the law.

Pelosi delivered a lengthy defense of the legislation she led to passage in the last session of Congress.

“This is, yet again, another example of our friends standing up for the insurance companies at the expense of the American people, standing up for the insurance companies at the expense of the health and well-being of our country,” Pelosi said.

The healthcare votes came as the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said in an updated assessment that repealing the healthcare law would actually drive up federal deficits by $210 billion by 2021 and leave 22 million more Americans without health insurance.

Staff writer Noam N. Levey in Washington contributed to this report.

lmascaro@tribune.com

khennessey@tribune.com


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