Incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, in an exclusive interview with National Journal, said Republicans are not backing away from their commitment to cut non-defense discretionary spending - despite allegations that it already has - and predicted next week’s vote on repealing the health care law will reveal Democratic “bleeding” as moderate Democrats side with the GOP.
“We have committed in the Pledge to America and we have continued to commit that we are going to be bring discretionary non-defense spending down to ’08 levels. I am looking to make sure we do that in an expeditious manner. So there’s no wavering on that. There’s going to be some hard work involved to make sure we get there,” Cantor said. “There is a real pinning on the part of the public to make sure that we reduce the reach of this government, which starts with reducing government spending. “
It is clear, however, that House Republicans will not meet the target of $100 billion in first-year spending cuts contained in the Pledge. That $100 billion figure was the difference between President Obama’s 2011 spending request and the 2008 non-defense discretionary spending approved under President Bush. Since the Democratically controlled 111th Congress never passed a budget or any of its appropriations bills, the ’11 Obama request never became law. Congress is now operating under a continuing resolution that sets spending at 2010 levels until March 4th.
House Republicans will cut from the ’10 baseline, which is at least $20 billion lower than Obama’s 2011 request. Republicans also say that reducing spending from the ’10 levels with only seven months of the fiscal year remaining (it ends Sept. 31), the spending cut total will be far less than $100 billion and might be only half that amount. This has prompted Democrats to accuse the House GOP of abandoning its fiscal austerity pledges even before taking power.
“I would say they are inaccurate,” Cantor said of the accusations of GOP back-sliding. “We are well into the fiscal year at this point, which means we are going to have to work to reduce the spending levels now, which are at the ’10 levels back to ’08. And we’ve got this sort of gap period that we’re operating in now to take care of the next fiscal year. So it is just sort of a formulaic challenge because you are dwelling on the continuing resolution rather than the new fiscal year.”
Incoming House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky met with every committee Republican and demanded they meet the goal of reducing non-discretionary, non-defense spending to ’08 levels, said spokeswoman Jennifer Hing.
“The message was strident,” Hing said. “Everyone on the committee committed to that level. We are not changing the goal. The goal is the same.”
Rep. Paul Ryan, incoming chairman of the Budget Committee, will establish the spending guidelines for the remainder of fiscal year 2011 and the appropriations committee will make the necessary cuts to meet those levels, Hing said.
Connor Sweeney, spokesman for the Budget Committee, blamed Democrats for the current budget situation.
“We estimated savings at that time relative to President Obama’s proposed fiscal blueprint due to the fact that Democrats in Congress offered no budget with which to compare,” Sweeney said. “Unfortunately, Democrats refused to take action and oversaw an unprecedented breakdown in the budget process, with stop-gap spending bills that provide a different benchmark than President Obama's initial fiscal plan. House Republicans will continue to work to reduce spending for the final six months of this fiscal year – bringing non-security discretionary spending back to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout level.”
The pace and depth of House Republican budget cuts could influence the ability of the leadership to persuade skeptical, Tea Party-inspired freshmen to support raising the debt ceiling, now at $14.3 trillion, in a key vote expected sometime in March. GOP strategists consider the vote – a statutory requirement to legally allow the Treasury Department to service the nation’s debt load – a crucial test of incoming Speaker John Boehner’s leadership. Boehner himself has described the issue as the new majority’s first “adult” moment.
Cantor said the GOP leadership team is trying to lay a foundation of fiscal restraint with floor votes to improve the atmosphere within party ranks before the debt limit vote occurs. He did not sound absolutely sure, however, that the strategy would work.
“We are going to be about cutting spending and were going to have several months prior to any vote having to deal with the debt limit and our test begins today,” Cantor said. “We intend to hold ourselves accountable to the electorate each and every day. We’ve committed to bring a bill to the floor every week that cuts spending and when we get to that debt limit vote we’re going to see what kind of legislative options are available to us in order to deal with that.”
Cantor also said one part of the GOP strategy to bring the health care repeal bill to the floor next week is to put early stress on Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s ability to hold her caucus together. Republicans hope to create early divisions in Democratic ranks on the health care vote in order to divide the party in advance of other votes on spending cuts and regulations House Republican intend to limit or undo completely.
“You’re going to see some bleeding on their side on this bill,” Cantor said, referring to the health care repeal vote. “Because many of their members understand that this election was about rejecting their agenda, a large part of which was the health care bill. And I’m hopeful that will translate into a much better environment for those in the Democratic caucus to come our way and join us in cutting spending, in shrinking the government and beginning to get this economy stabilized again.”
Of the 34 House Democrats to oppose the health care bill last year, 13 have returned to the 112th Congress. Cantor said it will be conspicuous and “absolutely” risky for those Democrats to oppose the GOP’s repeal effort in this new Congress.
This article appears in the January 5, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.