WASHINGTON - In a deepening struggle over spending, Republicans and Democrats swapped charges Thursday over a possible government shutdown when funding expires March 4 for most federal agencies.
"Read my lips: We're going to cut spending," declared House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who pledged that the GOP-controlled House would refuse to approve even a short-term measure at current funding levels to keep the government operating.
He prefaced his remarks by accusing Democrats of risking a shutdown "rather than to cut spending and to follow the will of the American people." But moments later, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., retorted that Boehner was resorting "to threats of a shutdown without any negotiation."
The sparring occurred as the House labored to complete work on veto-threatened legislation to cut more than $61 billion from the budget year that's more than a third over. That bill also would provide funding to keep the government operating until Sept. 30.
With that one bill at the center of a political dispute - the House has repeatedly worked well past midnight on the legislation this week - Boehner chose the moment to open a second front. To underscore the budget-cutting commitment by the 87 conservative new members of his rank and file, he announced that Republicans would move quickly this spring on companion legislation to cut "wasteful mandatory spending" by the federal government.
He provided no details, but party officials said they expected the effort to begin shortly after the House returns from next week's recess.
The current legislation is sweeping in scope, containing cuts to literally hundreds of domestic programs, from education to environmental protection, nutrition and parks.
In addition, it has become a target for first-term conservative Republicans eager to demonstrate their budget-cutting bona fides and for other lawmakers hoping to change the course of government in ways large or small.
In a series of votes on Thursday, for example:
- Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., was successful in cutting an additional $20 million from the National Endowment for the Arts, already targeted for a $23 million reduction from current levels. The vote was 217-207.
- But by a margin of 322-104, Rep. Charlie Bass, R-N.H., lost his bid to restore $50 million of a proposed cut in funding for low-income heating assistance.
- Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., sought to eliminate funding for the National Labor Relations Board, but was rebuffed, 250-176. That left in place a cut of $50 million, or 18 percent, for the agency that referees disputes between workers and employers.
House leaders had originally hoped to complete work on the bill by day's end, but even after long hours in session this week, that appeared increasingly unlikely.
Among the dozens of proposals yet to be voted on was an attempt to block the use of funds to implement the year-old health care law, and a move to prevent the Federal Communications Commission from implementing proposed new regulations known as network neutrality.
At 359 pages, the legislation would eliminate some programs while reducing many more.
Among those targeted for elimination are the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps and Senior Corps and currently has a budget in excess of $1 billion.
Funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would also be wiped out, at $86 million.
The spending bill bears the strong imprint of the newly elected Republicans, many of whom were backed by tea party supporters and are sworn to reduce deficits.
An attempt by GOP leaders to send a smaller package of spending cuts to the floor was rebuffed last week by the newcomers, who said they would accept nothing less than a measure that met their commitment to the voters last fall. As candidates, they promised to cut Obama's budget request by $100 billion, a figure that translates to $61 billion from current levels.
While passage in the House is assured, the legislation faces a rocky reception in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Democrats there have not yet said what level of cuts, if any, they will accept through Sept. 30. Nor has the White House.
As a result, the expectation is widespread that no final compromise will be reached before the March 4 deadline, leaving lawmakers and the White House to work out a stopgap bill - or perhaps even a series of them - while negotiating over the comprehensive measure.
Boehner's statement that he will accept no short-term bill without spending cuts is in keeping with the mood of his rank and file. At the same time, it underscores a strategic calculation among Republicans that the way to exert maximum pressure on the White House is to demand at least a modest reduction in spending at each opportunity.
At the same time, Boehner has said repeatedly the Republicans do not desire a government shutdown, an experience he has some experience with.
He was a junior member of the GOP leadership in 1995 when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich led Republicans into a confrontation over spending that resulted in twin government shutdowns.
The stalemate ended in a Republican retreat, and helped then-President Bill Clinton resurrect his presidency after sweeping defeats in the 1994 congressional elections.
Boehner's statement that Republicans intend to cut "wasteful mandatory spending" before writing a 2012 budget this spring came as a surprise to some GOP aides.
They said planning was not far along, and offered no details on the overall amount of savings anticipated.
Among the items under consideration for cuts is a prevention and public health fund established under the health care law approved last year. Alexa Marrero, a spokeswoman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called it a "massive slush fund" for the Health and Human Services Department.
Last year, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of the program at nearly $13 billion over a decade.
Other possible targets are Medicare and the welfare program, according to aides, but Social Security is not among the programs under scrutiny as part of the effort.
Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Laurie Kellman, Stephen Ohlemacher and Andrew Taylor contributed to this story.