The Republican Plan to Outmaneuver House Democrats

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How the GOP intends to avoid a government shutdown, cut spending, and deflect blame

House Republicans are drafting a two-week continuing resolution to keep the government operating after the current CR expires on March 4 and will file the bill on Friday, National Journal has learned.

The measure will contain about $4 billion in spending cuts and will merge cuts approved last week by the House and several taken from President Obama's list of program terminations and savings. Three senior House GOP aides said the strategy is designed to avert a government shutdown and limit the ability of Senate Democrats and the White House to portray Republicans as unreasonable or inflexible.

"We will put together a bill that cuts spending about $4 billion for two weeks when the deficit is $1.5 trillion this year," a source said. "And the question will be this: Will Senate Democrats cut any spending at all?"

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., has already begun drafting the CR, though a final determination on the precise amount of spending cuts and which programs will be targeted has not been made, several House GOP sources said. Republicans plan to vote on the measure next Tuesday or Wednesday.

The CR would extend government financing for two weeks after Obama signed the bill and its cuts would be prorated to reflect the $100 billion in cuts approved in last week's CR. In other words, the $4 billion in savings would be roughly equal to the cuts the CR called for if carried out for just two weeks.

House GOP leaders held a conference call with freshmen GOP members on Wednesday to lay out the strategy. More than half of the 87-member class participated in a call with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio; Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.; Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.; and House Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas. The call gave more detail to an outline of the strategy GOP leaders gave the freshmen class before it left Washington for this week's recess.

The GOP aides said the thrust of the trimmed-down CR is to avoid a government shutdown and make the GOP spending cuts as hard as possible for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the White House to ignore or criticize. "What we will end up saying is we have passed two bills to prevent a shutdown and then we will ask the Senate: 'How many bills have you passed to prevent a shutdown?' " an aide said.

Senate Democrats dismissed the idea that the House proposal represented any kind of concession.

"The Republicans' so-called compromise is nothing more than the same extreme package the House already handed the Senate, just with a different bow," said Jon Summers, Reid's communications director. "This isn't a compromise; it's a hardening of their original position. This bill would simply be a two-week version of the reckless measure the House passed last weekend. It would impose the same spending levels in the short term as their initial proposal does in the long term, and it isn't going to fool anyone. Both proposals are non-starters in the Senate."

The GOP freshmen, according to senior House GOP aides, backed the approach, even though it amounts to a retreat from the $61 billion in cuts from enacted fiscal 2010 spending levels (and $100 billion from Obama's fiscal 2011 budget proposal that the previous Congress ignored). The House approved the $100 billion in cuts after the freshmen rejected the GOP-leadership-backed plan to cut $32 billion from fiscal 2010 spending levels.

According to several GOP sources, the freshmen and many senior conservatives are girding for an eventual retreat from the bigger CR because they know GOP leaders are fearful of the political consequences of a government shutdown and want to wage the spending-cut battle over many cycles--instead of betting all their chips on this first showdown with Reid and Obama.

Boehner and Cantor have pleaded with the freshmen to take the long view of the budget war and not risk a political backlash over the CR dispute. GOP leaders have instead argued to win as many spending cuts as they can during the CR debate and follow up with more when Congress must raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling later this spring and find still more when the fiscal 2012 appropriations bills are written.

This approach reflects Boehner's deep-seated belief that the 1995 Gingrich-led Congress risked everything in its shutdown confrontation with President Bill Clinton, and in the aftermath Republicans not only lacked the stomach to fight for more spending cuts, they veered in the opposite direction and targeted federal spending to vulnerable districts to protect the GOP majority.

"We have a totally different mindset and approach than 1995," said a senior House GOP source. "We don't want to shut the government down. But we do want to cut spending. And we will. And the CR will do that one way or the other."

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Major Garrett is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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