House Speaker John Boehner returns to his office after votes Friday. (Alex Wong, Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — 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.
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.
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."
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."