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GOP-led House approves $60b in spending cuts

Vote sets stage for standoff with Obama, Senate

By David M. Herszenhorn
New York Times / February 20, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The House yesterday approved a huge package of spending cuts, slashing some $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 grass-roots fervor of the November elections into legislative action to shrink the size and scope of government.

The vote, 235 to 189, was a victory for the large, boisterous class of fiscally conservative Republican freshmen that is 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 benefits and weaken their collective bargaining rights.

The House approved its spending measure before dawn yesterday 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 prepared 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.’’

He 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; the White House had threatened to veto the bill before it was approved. The Democrats say 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 Friday, lawmakers and Washington at large have begun to face the possibility that even a temporary accord will be difficult to achieve.

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 Republicans who opposed the spending package were Representative 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.

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.

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

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, would 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.

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’ health care overhaul, and bar new regulation of certain greenhouse gases.

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

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.

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.

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