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Republicans wrestle with dissent on budget cuts

GOP leaders in Congress scale back earlier goals to levels they say are realistic, but staunch conservatives want to slash deeply.

January 24, 2011|By Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Congressional Republicans are grappling with dissent within the party's ranks over the size and scope of proposed reductions as they seek to fulfill a campaign promise to slash the federal budget.

The Republican Party's conservative wing has proposed even deeper and potentially more controversial cuts than the GOP's leaders have prescribed — or believe are politically feasible this year. Prospects for reductions in cancer research or the FBI, for example, are causing consternation within the party and controversy in Washington.

The party's leadership already has scaled back a goal of $100 billion in spending cuts in the current budget year, a figure Republicans promised during last year's midterm election campaign. But conservative Republicans are insisting on cuts nearly twice as deep — reaching to $2.5 trillion over 10 years. Party leaders do not believe such cuts are politically or practically achievable.

"There are differences of opinion and differences on specifics on how the promise is kept," said GOP strategist Kevin Madden. "We're in an age where many voters are more inclined to side with austerity than any time in the past."

Even larger divisions among Republicans loom later this year. GOP conservatives are demanding a hard line against raising the country's debt limit, now capped at $14.3 trillion, but party leaders have said they would agree to increase it after obtaining spending concessions.

Underscoring the differences, the party will offer two different responses to President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday. Republican leaders chose Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to respond, but Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) will speak on behalf of party conservatives and the "tea party" faction.

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the majority leader, noted Monday that Ryan "is giving the official response."

The tensions pose a challenge to top party leaders such as House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who want to give a voice to conservatives but also advance a united GOP agenda that does not appear unreasonable to independent voters and middle-of-the-road Americans.

Obama, riding a new wave of public approval, is likely to propose budget cuts and investments to provide for economic growth in his speech Tuesday. Republicans equate investment with spending and instead advocate what they call a "cut and grow" strategy.

Since winning control of the House, the GOP has sought to exert authority on budget issues by rolling out weekly budget cuts — voting to reduce congressional office budgets one week, prohibiting the government from printing extra copies of legislation the next.

But GOP leaders, including Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, have acknowledged that their goal of cutting $100 billion by rolling back spending limits to 2008 levels will not occur because the fiscal year will soon be half over. Instead, they expect to save about $60 billion.

The House is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a resolution that provides guidance to the Budget Committee. Republicans are expected to vote unanimously to recommend spending at or below 2008 levels. But the resolution masks differences over how deeply to actually cut this year.

Boehner agrees with the goal of spending at 2008 levels. "But that will be the beginning, not the end, of our efforts to cut spending and create jobs — and the speaker appreciates every member's input," said Michael Steel, his spokesman.

In its recommendations last week, the conservative Republican Study Committee, a large group of Republican lawmakers, proposed eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, cutting money for new rail lines and gutting public funds for presidential campaigns and party conventions.

Some cuts, such as elimination of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helps fund National Public Radio, also were among recommendations issued last year by President Obama's bipartisan fiscal commission. Others hit purely political targets, such as U.S. funding for the United Nations' panel on climate change.

"If we don't do a real serious job with spending these next two years, then I think that voters in my district will feel that I didn't deliver," freshman Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), who supports the deeper cuts, said in an interview. "And I would imagine that sentiment is felt by a lot of freshman."

Nearly all of the cuts proposed by conservatives, like those proposed by GOP leaders, are in nonsecurity, discretionary spending, which makes up only 15% of the $3.8-trillion federal budget.

Longstanding budget hawks consider arguments over such cuts to be a distraction because they fail to address defense, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

"You're attacking a part of the budget that's not the problem," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group.

Bixby said GOP leaders will have a problem managing the expectations of conservatives.

"The standard they set for themselves in terms of budget cutting and deficit reduction were very high and the expectations were unrealistic," Bixby said. "Some of the leaders in the House, Boehner and Ryan, do have a bit of a problem in trying to write a tough and realistic budget that can get done, and tamping down some of the unrealistic expectations."

Like House leaders, Senate Republicans also are grappling with differences over spending. Some agree with a proposal to ban the practice of "earmarks," setting aside money for a senator's home state. But not all Republican senators have signed on to the ban.

"I think we ought to try to reduce spending as much as we possibly can, and there are going to be a lot of different ideas," said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader. "We're going to have members who want to do more, who want to do less."

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

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