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Big Cuts on the Agenda, Details on Hold

File Photo
Speaker John Boehner (right) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor have taken a measured approach to cutting the budget in their first few weeks in leadership.

With an ambitious plan to cut $100 billion in federal spending as a backdrop, House Republicans are sticking to broad pronouncements about the need for cuts as they quietly work out a legislative strategy for the coming months.

Unlike previous leadership regimes in the House that charged ahead furiously in the early weeks of their new tenure, Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) have taken a measured approach. Aside from last weeks symbolic vote on repeal of the health care law a bill even Republicans acknowledge has no chance of becoming law the schedule has been limited to minor spending cuts such as a federal printing reduction bill and broader resolutions tasking committees with beginning work on more substantive measures.

Although leaders have been pressed to lay out specific spending cuts and other budget measures they will pursue, they have largely avoided such pronouncements. For instance, when asked about what cuts to infrastructure and education spending he would support, Cantor on Monday said only: Weve got a changing dynamic across the board, with the imperative for us to cut spending. And those are the kind of things this Congress will be about.

So far, the strategy of not immediately pursuing sweeping spending and economic reforms seems to be sitting well with Republicans.

Freshman Rep. Joe Walsh said he wasnt worried about leadership backtracking on its promise to cut spending to 2008 levels.

I expect them to be pretty receptive, the Illinois Republican said Thursday. He said that he expected a dizzying pace over the next month or two as the House takes up budget issues.

They are going to try to cut something every week and grow that concept, Walsh said. Its a dance; its a process.

Even Republicans who have been pushing for deeper cuts something leadership has largely resisted embracing in public are understanding.

Rep. Jim Jordan, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said that while he understands the GOP leaderships position that it would be hard to go back to 2008 levels four months into the fiscal year, he still thinks they should be able to cut $100 billion.

The $100 billion is the number that the American people heard, I think, last fall, and frankly when you are looking at it in the context that there was a $14 trillion debt, it seems to me we should be able to find $100 billion [to cut] for the remainder of 2010, the Ohio Republican said.

In the past, the RSC has often been a thorn in the side of the GOPs elected leadership. But at least for now, Jordan and its membership appear content to act as a loyal opposition of sorts within the party. In a cordial letter to Boehner and other leaders Monday, the RSC urged: With this historic opportunity to cut spending and grow our economy, it is critical that our Conference, at a minimum, meet the original $100 billion savings goal. ... We stand ready to work with you on finding the savings needed.

The go-slow strategy has significant upsides for leadership. For instance, it provides more time to work out specific policy proposals that can get wide approval from rank-and-file Republicans. Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) have also been conducting listening sessions with freshman Members on budget issues to solicit ideas and discuss possible policy options.

Slowing the legislative process and securing support from the bulk of his party allows Boehner to claim credit on making good on the campaign pledge of having a more open process without risking the types of major floor rebellions that plagued Democrats over the past two years.

More broadly, it also gives Cantor and Boehner time to talk in broader themes of governing without being constrained by a specific policy fight. For example, Cantor will travel to Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday for the annual international economic meeting. Although he isnt expected to use the trip to announce any broad new policies, he does hope to use it as a way to amplify our House Republican spending message.

Aides acknowledged the delay does cause problems, particularly in the short term when Members dont have any major legislative actions to point to.

Its the one problem with Boehners strategy, a GOP aide said Monday, explaining that until committees have time to do their work and leadership develops a concrete plan for cutting the budget, Republicans will have to stick to generalities. Whenever someone asks us about specifics ... all we have is printing, the aide said.

Additionally, Republicans warned that if they dont deliver on their promises, it could mean big problems for junior House Members.

I can speak for myself that if we dont do a real serious job on spending these next two years, then I think voters in my district will feel like I didnt deliver, and I would imagine that sentiment is felt by a lot of freshmen, Walsh said.

Anna Palmer contributed to this report.

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