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House GOP battles Obama — and itself — on spending

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After President Obama uses the State of the Union address to call for increased “investment” in projects like high-speed rail and clean energy, Republicans will deliver a response emphasizing the urgent need to cut federal spending. House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan will do the talking, but the fact is, Republicans aren't speaking with one voice these days when it comes to the most important item on their agenda. Everyone in the GOP wants to cut the deficit, but there is increasing tension over how much and how fast.

Monday afternoon, on the eve of the president's speech, 89 members of the House Republican Study Committee sent a letter to Speaker John Boehner urging him to cut $100 billion from the federal budget in this fiscal year. Back in September, when Republicans released their “Pledge to America,” they promised to save “at least $100 billion in the first year alone.” But nobody agrees on what that means.

Does it mean in this fiscal year, which started last Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30? Or this calendar year, ending Dec. 31? Since nearly four months of the fiscal year passed before Republicans took charge of the House, the GOP leadership wants the longer, calendar year to make the cuts. Appearing on “Meet the Press” Sunday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor promised spending would be cut “on an annualized basis.”

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The Study Committee want to go faster. “Despite the added challenge of being four months into the current fiscal year, we still must keep our $100 billion pledge to the American people,” the letter says. “These $100 billion in cuts to non-defense discretionary spending not only ensure that we keep our word to the American people; they represent a credible down payment on the fiscally responsible measures that will be needed to get the nation's finances back on track.”

Study committee sources say the letter was written, at least in part, to put a little pressure on Boehner. “We're obviously not slamming him or anything like that, but the members think we need to go farther than leadership has been talking about,” says one aide.

One particular source of frustration — one that goes beyond the Hill — is the leadership's reluctance to publicly discuss what parts of the budget they will cut. A few weeks ago Boehner was asked by NBC to “name a program right now that we could do without.” His answer: “I don't think I have one off the top of my head.” Then, on “Meet the Press” Sunday, Cantor repeatedly failed to specify the spending Republicans will target.

Cantor insisted the GOP would not vote to increase the debt limit “unless there are serious spending cuts and reforms.” But when host David Gregory asked, “Like what?” Cantor's answer was vague. “We have talked a lot about bringing spending levels down to '08 levels,” he said. “We've talked about things that we can do to make sure that off into the future this does — this kind of spending doesn't continue.” Pressed further, the only cut Cantor named was the Presidential Campaign Fund, which he said would save $500 million.

Last September, when Cantor, Boehner and other House Republicans rolled out their “Pledge to America,” they made a number of specific promises on spending. They would cancel the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. They would stop spending all remaining stimulus funds. They would cut nonsecurity discretionary spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels. They would put a “hard cap” on new discretionary spending. They haven't backed away from those promises, but they haven't offered more specifics, either.

That stands in contrast to the work of the study committee, which last week unveiled a plan to cut federal spending by $2.5 trillion over the next decade. Not only did the plan include the cuts outlined in the pledge, it listed line after line of other suggested savings. Cut the Community Development Fund ($4.5 billion a year). The Corporation for Public Broadcasting subsidy ($445 million a year). Intercity and High Speed Rail Grants ($2.5 billion). Amtrak subsidies ($1.5 billion). National and Community Services Act Programs ($1.1 billion). And more.

Republican insiders say the House Appropriations Committee will soon unveil billions in specific cuts of its own. And just hours before the State of the Union, the GOP plans to pass a resolution cutting nondefense discretionary spending to 2008 levels. After a shaky start, Republicans will officially be moving toward spending cuts. It's just not clear whether they'll all agree on the route.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.



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