By DAVID ESPO and ANDREW TAYLOR
WASHINGTON - On a collision course over spending, House Republicans advanced a sweeping, $61 billion package of budget reductions on Tuesday despite a swift veto threat and a warning from President Barack Obama against unwise cuts "that could endanger the recovery."
Congressional Democrats said the Republican cuts would reduce U.S. employment rather than add to it and leapt to criticize when House Speaker John Boehner said "so be it" if jobs are lost among the ranks of federal employees.
Spending legislation must be signed into law by March 4 to prevent a government shutdown that neither side says it wants. The GOP bill, separate from the 2012 budget Obama unveiled on Monday, covers spending for the fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30.
The current legislation would affect domestic programs ranging from education and science to agriculture and parks, and it marks the first significant attack on federal deficits by Republicans elected last fall with the support of tea party activists. Passage is expected by week's end in the House, but a frosty reception is expected later in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
For all the maneuvering, the measure is merely a first round in what looms as a politically defining struggle that will soon expand to encompass Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the large government programs that provide benefits directly to tens of millions.
"We know we can't balance this budget simply by reducing nonsecurity, nondefense spending," said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, referring to the 350-page bill that would cut $61 billion from domestic programs.
"But as the saying goes, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. This is that first step."
The measure is sweeping in its scope, cutting spending from literally hundreds of domestic budget accounts and eliminating many others. At the same time, Pentagon spending would rise from current levels.
In a reflection of tea party priorities, earmarks are banned in the bill. And in a fulfillment of a promise that Republicans made to the voters last fall, about $100 billion would be cut from funds that Obama requested for the current fiscal year.
While Republicans touted their legislation as an essential step toward deficit control, Democrats argued it was dangerous.
"With severe and indiscriminate spending cuts, it goes too far. This legislation will destroy American jobs while harming middle class families, young adults, seniors and, yes, even our veterans," said California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader.
At a White House news conference, Obama said he looked forward to working with lawmakers in both parties on the spending bill, which he noted includes funding to allow the government to remain in operation after existing authority expires on March 4.
At the same time, in an apparent reference to the GOP campaign promises for $100 billion in cuts, he said, "I think it is important to make sure that we don't try to make a series of symbolic cuts this year that could endanger the recovery."
A few hours after Obama spoke, the White House issued a formal statement expressing "strong opposition" to the legislation. It threatened a veto if the bill "undermines critical priorities or national security . or curtails the drivers of long-term economic growth and job creation."
The Environmental Protection Agency, a favorite target of conservatives, is ticketed for a 29 percent cut from last year's levels. The Food and Drug Administration budget would decline by 10 percent, and spending would also fall by 10 percent for the government's principal nutrition program for pregnant women and children.
Republicans used their first major spending bill to reflect conservative priorities on a range of issues, from abortion to the environment.
The bill would prohibit federal funding for any private organization that uses its own funds to facilitate abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is in jeopardy.
It also would block the administration from terminating plans for a nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada - a direct challenge to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Additionally, the EPA would be barred from regulating greenhouse gas emissions from factories and other stationary sites.
Conservatives said they would attempt to add other policy requirements to the legislation during floor debate, including one to prevent the implementation of the year-old health care law.
Others are backed by affected industries. One would stop the Federal Communications Commission from enforcing its proposed new "network neutrality" policy, which prohibits phone and cable companies from interfering with traffic on their broadband networks.
A second would block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions from factories and other stationary sources.
After a six-week period of preliminary skirmishes, this week's events mark a quickening in the pace of developments in the budget fight that appears likely to dominate Congress' attention for the year.
While the bill on the House floor is essentially mop-up legislation for the current fiscal year, Obama released his budget for next year on Monday and Republicans are expected to counter with their own spending blueprint later this spring.
The president has drawn criticism for omitting the far-reaching deficit-cutting changes a presidential commission discussed late last year, principally in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
At his news conference, he said he hopes to work with lawmakers in both parties on the issues, and added, "If you look at the history of how these deals get done, typically it's not because there's an Obama plan out there. It's because Democrats and Republicans are both committed to tackling this issue in a serious way."
House Republicans issued a statement that promised to take the first step.
"Our budget will lead where the president has failed, and it will include real entitlement reforms," said the GOP leaders.