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House GOP seeks steep cuts while raising debt ceiling

The House agrees to suspend the debt limit into May but demands spending cuts that would balance the budget in 10 years, an unusually ambitious goal.

January 23, 2013|By Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau
  • Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) speaks to reporters after the House vote.
Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) speaks to reporters after the House vote. (Pete Marovich, European…)

— Stepping up their austerity campaign, House Republicans plan to demand far deeper spending cuts from President Obama to balance the federal budget in just 10 years, an extraordinary goal that would hit Medicare and other safety-net programs.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), confronted with a more conservative Republican majority, agreed to the dramatic initiative to coax reluctant rank-and-file lawmakers Wednesday to approve a temporary suspension of the $16.4-trillion debt limit without any cuts in spending.

The new proposal to balance the budget in a decade would zero out the federal deficit almost twice as fast as previous Republican efforts.

"It's time for us to get serious about how over the next 10 years we balance this budget and put America on a sustainable fiscal path," the speaker said after the debt ceiling measure passed the House, 285 to 144. It now goes to the Senate, which is also expected to approve it.

The House vote puts the White House and Congress on another collision course in the budget battles that are expected to consume the first months of Obama's second term.

Republicans, who agreed to tax increases on the wealthy in the year-end budget deal, have insisted that the next round of deficit reduction must come from the spending side of the ledger.

But because Republicans want to protect the Pentagon, their approach would require steep reductions in domestic programs — particularly education, infrastructure investment and the safety net for low- and moderate-income Americans.

House Republicans will write their new budget in the coming weeks, but similar blueprints for eliminating the deficit in 10 years have pointed to austere measures: turning Medicare into a voucher-like program and raising the age at which seniors become eligible, cutting food stamps and school lunch subsidies, and holding other domestic accounts flat.

Republicans believe the public will be on their side, even though they lost the presidential election with the architect of the last House budget on the ticket. Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the wonkish Budget Committee chairman, again will take the lead in crafting the new budget.

Ryan said he did not see the electoral loss as a rejection of the party's principles. "I think we need to do a better job of applying our principles to the problems of today, to show solutions to the country's biggest problems and how they relate in people's everyday lives," he told reporters Wednesday at a breakfast hosted by the Wall Street Journal.

The nation has been running record yearly deficits, topping $1 trillion, almost since Obama took office. That largely stems from plummeting tax revenue during the recession and increased spending on the recovery effort and on healthcare costs for an aging population.

The debt load doubled during President George W. Bush's two terms with the wars overseas, and continues to rise toward levels that many economists say would destabilize interest rates and the economy. Closing the budget gap would require a $5-trillion adjustment over the decade.

Some economists, such as Paul N. Van de Water, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, say the political effort that would require could be better focused elsewhere.

"Trying to balance the budget is a needlessly ambitious goal," he said. "Certainly a reasonable interim goal would be to cut deficits enough to make sure the debt doesn't keep rising as a share of the economy."

The Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, plans to contrast the Ryan approach with its own budget, which is expected to raise revenue by closing tax breaks for the wealthy and loopholes that benefit specific industries, including oil and gas.

"The American people went to the polls and strongly endorsed the Democrats' balanced approach that puts jobs and the middle class first, calls on the wealthy to pay their fair share," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

Even before April 15, when the House and Senate face a deadline to pass budgets, a series of built-in deadlines will force both sides to negotiate. On March 1, the federal budget faces $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts that both sides want to alter. Then on March 27, Congress will need to approve money for routine government operations, or risk a shutdown.

After the short-term debt ceiling measure expires on May 18, the ceiling would need to be raised again, although the Treasury could take measures to extend borrowing into July.

Conservatives continue to object to raising the debt ceiling, as was evident Wednesday when 33 opposed the measure. That forced Boehner to find Democratic votes for passage.

Boehner had sweetened the legislation to attract support by attaching a provision that would temporarily withhold the pay of senators or representatives if their chamber failed to produce an annual budget by the deadline. The tactic drew Democratic and Republican votes.

But some Democrats complained Wednesday that Republicans were simply setting up another "fiscal cliff." Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.) said, "House Republicans continue to play with economic fire."

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