From left, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is greeted by Senate Finance… (Susan Walsh, Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — In a rare, freewheeling marathon of proposed spending cuts, GOP leaders in the House threw open the doors to the federal budget, and lawmakers careened from debates on fighter jet engines to wild horses as they tried to bore through an expanding mound of amendments that had grown to 600.
By Friday, the Republican drive to cut more than $61 billion this year will have spanned the federal government's domestic reach, including environmental protection, healthcare and passenger rail. The proposed cuts touched on every conceivable subject: Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) proposed to stop funding research on the impact of yoga on menopausal women.
The scramble Wednesday reflected the Republicans' effort to fulfill their campaign promise to rein in government spending. It has led to a tumultuous scene in which lawmakers have struggled to keep up with the blizzard of amendments.
Despite those efforts, the ultimate effect on the federal budget will be sharply limited. Even if Congress eliminated all of the nation's nondefense, discretionary spending and defunded domestic Cabinet departments, it would save only about $500 billion, leaving an operating deficit this year of $1 trillion.
Nonetheless, conservatives pushed for more and more cuts, offering proposals to dig further into domestic programs already targeted for drastic reductions. They took aim at specific projects, pet peeves or parochial concerns.
"One hundred billion is one-fifteenth of the annual deficit," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). "We need to go deeper. I don't think we've cut to the bone as some people think we have."
Amid the enthusiasm for cutting the budget was acknowledgement that reductions would have potentially adverse effects back home. Even as lawmakers pushed for deep cuts in some areas, a few Republicans deftly tried to protect money for programs they support.
Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.) proposed taking $50 million out of mental health services to bolster a heating assistance program that was slashed by $390 million in the budget. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) proposed an amendment that would move $500 million from a school improvement fund and put the money toward special education.
Democrats have denounced the effort as "extreme and indiscriminate." Any cuts passed by the House are unlikely to get far in the Senate, which is preparing for a fight. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he favored holding spending to 2010 levels, in line with President Obama's proposed five-year spending freeze.
The spasm of voting, a result of a campaign promise from House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) for a wide-open process, carried some unintended consequences. Democrats seized the opportunity to put Republicans in the political hot seat, meeting with some success.
For instance, Republicans broke ranks to vote in favor of reinstating $300 million for local police officers and $500 million for firefighters, cuts that Democrats used as examples of the harmful reach of the Republican proposal.
Democrats joined with Republicans to scrap $450 million for a controversial backup engine for the military's Joint Strike Fighter project, one of the amendments that deviated from domestic spending and delved into the national security budget.
But GOP members showed they were more partial to defense spending, voting to reject a Democratic amendment to eliminate $1.5 billion from efforts to build up Iraqi security forces.
The disarray posed a challenge for lawmakers and their aides as they tried to decipher the purpose of each amendment. On the floor, the confusion was bipartisan, said Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.). Democrats and Republicans found themselves striking up conversations about policy as they asked one another what each amendment did.
"It thought it was pretty darn cool," Gosar said.
The open process was a result of Boehner's promise to scrap rules followed by House leaders in the past, including former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), and to allow more amendments and unbridled debate.
Leadership showed little public distaste for the legislative enthusiasm. Boehner on Tuesday came to the floor to offer a gentle but pointed reminder for members to work together and get their amendments in order.
"We're into some unchartered waters," he said. "I'm ready to expect whatever."
But behind the scenes, GOP leaders were working to rein in the unruly process as they warned members to expect votes into the day on Friday. Many amendments were repetitive and likely to be withdrawn or ruled out of order before coming up for a vote.
In a matter of an hour at one point Wednesday, the House jumped from a vote on the Joint Strike Fighter to a discussion of whether federal funds should be used to round up wild horses; the House voted no.