With time running out for Congress to produce a spending measure to keep the government operating, House Speaker John Boehner struck a more aggressive pose today that will surely ramp up legislative skirmishing and heighten chances of a government shutdown next month.
Boehner said that if the Senate and the House can’t reach agreement on a bill that reduces spending for the rest of the year, the GOP-controlled House will not agree to maintain current spending levels past March 4, when the current continuing resolution expires. Without some kind of agreement, government operation will grind to a halt.
“When we say we’re going to cut spending -- read my lips -- we’re going to cut spending,” said Boehner, R-Ohio, during his weekly news conference, echoing former President George H.W. Bush's famous "no new taxes" promise at the 1988 Republican National Convention.
Boehner later explained, “I am not going to move any kind of short-term CR at current levels.”
He and other House Republican leaders are working this week to pass a CR that would fund the rest of fiscal 2011, which ends September 30, and cut at least $60 billion from current discretionary funding levels. Democrats argued that Boehner's unwillingness to negotiate is a byproduct of his inability to control the members of his caucus, some of whom, they charge, are making unreasonable demands on cuts.
Boehner’s statement seems to increase the chances of a standoff with the Senate about a short-term CR, but he says it is Democrats who are inviting a shutdown. "We have some Democrats here on Capitol Hill threatening to shut down the government rather than to cut spending and to follow the will of the American people," Boehner said.
“We are very disappointed that because Speaker Boehner can’t control the votes in his caucus, they’re going to shut down the government,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters after leaving a briefing by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on the Middle East. “And now he is resorting to threats to do just that. That is not permissible and we won’t stand for that. He’s wrong.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., endorsed Boehner's position against a short CR at current levels. "I agree," McConnell said. His position means that Democrats will struggle to pass short-term CR in the Senate since such bills typically move by unanimous consent. GOP opposition could likely leave Democrats without enough time to pass a short CR regardless of House GOP opposition.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said of Boehner, “I hope he realizes there are two houses” of Congress.
Debate on that bill continues today, and Boehner said he did not know for certain when a final vote would occur before the House breaks this week for its Presidents Day district work week away from Washington.
But even if Republicans pass their continuing resolution, it will only be, at best, the opening bid in negotiation with the Senate, where Democrats are writing their own package.
And with both chambers scheduled to be away next week, Congress will have just one week before the current CR expires.
“We’re going to do everything that we can to cut spending. We’re hopeful the Senate will take up the House-passed bill that comes out of here today, tonight, tomorrow morning -- whenever it is -- we hope they will move [it],” said Boehner.
“But our goal here is to cut spending,” he said. “I am not going to move any kind of short-term CR at current levels.”
While the House GOP is focused on passing its CR, which President Obama has threatened to veto if it gets to his desk, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said Republicans will seek to enact a similar level of cuts, just not necessarily the same targets.
Meanwhile, Reid said on Wednesday that Inouye is drafting a CR that reflects Senate Democrats’ agreement Tuesday to freeze spending for five years.
“If Sen. Reid is unwilling to listen to the American people and cut spending in a temporary CR, he will be responsible for the government shutdown he and Sen. [Chuck] Schumer are rooting for,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.
While the House Republicans' CR would cut at least $60 billion from current discretionary spending levels, the package would also cut $100 billion from discretionary spending compared to President Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget request.
House Republican leaders have also been touting the open process under which the CR is being considered, which has led to nearly 600 amendments being offered.
The House Appropriations Committee leaders have been working to collapse the number of amendments into a shorter list that could be passed by a unanimous consent agreement. Aides said that leaders still hope to finish work on the bill today, but the original deadline of 3 p.m. will likely not be met. House Democrats have said that they have been put on notice that votes could spill into Friday.
The House voted on 13 more amendments to the CR, including a proposal from Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, that would reduce the funding for Amtrak capital spending by $446.9 million.
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., offered an amendment to reduce funding for the Children and Families Services Program and the Community Service Block Grant each by $100 million. The amendment failed 115-316.
Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., sought to eliminate funding for the National Labor Relations Board. The amendment failed 176-250.
Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., offered a proposal, which passed 268-163, that would cut $42.7 million from the U.S. Institute of Peace in order to reduce the deficit. The think tank was established by Congress in 1984 and provides analysis, training, and tools that prevent and end conflicts; promotes stability; and professionalizes the field of peace-building. Wiener and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday questioning its need for taxpayer dollars.
Humberto Sanchez and Dan Friendman contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the February 17, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.