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Federal budget battle: Can Congress avoid a government shutdown?

GOP proposals to cut the federal budget range from $100 billion to $500 billion to a symbolic $1.5 trillion. With Democrats wary of stifling the economic recovery, the divide just may be too wide.

By Staff writer / January 26, 2011

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Jan. 26, to discuss the introduction of legislation on the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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Congress heads into a new budget season with an unusually broad disparity of views on the way forward, signaling that “getting to yes” on a budget deal could be especially difficult this year.

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In his State of the Union address, President Obama offered a bifurcated vision: a five-year freeze on discretionary federal spending, expected to save $26 billion over the five years, but also new investments in education, renewable energy, infrastructure and basic research. Net spending: to be determined in the president’s FY 2012 budget, to be released next month.

House Republican leaders are calling for even deeper spending cuts, beginning in the current fiscal year. On Tuesday, the House voted to reduce non-security related discretionary spending to fiscal 2008 levels. Fifteen moderate Democrats joined Republicans in this otherwise party-line vote, which passed 256 to 165.

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But there is a wide range of views within GOP ranks on how deep the cuts should go, effective this year. House GOP leaders are calling for $100 billion annualized. That’s about $60 billion for 2011, since the fiscal year began on Oct. 1.

By contrast, Senate Democrats are wary of spending cuts when the economy is still recovering.

“We’re seeing everything from pro-stimulus spending to slash-and-burn [proposals],” says Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a fiscal watchdog. “Republicans have some real problems now with a lot of their newly elected members, who are not accepting the fairly traditional boundaries in which these debates were held.”

The newly empowered Republican Study Committee (RSC) – the House GOP’s conservative caucus, whose membership grew to 176 from 115 in the last Congress – wants $100 billion cut from the 2011 budget. Other Republicans, however, are proposing to cut far more, $500 billion or even, symbolically, $1.5 trillion, the estimate for the FY 2011 federal deficit released Wednesday by the Congressional Budget Office.

“I don’t think the president understands what the American people wanted” in the last election, says Rep. Jim Jordan (R) of Ohio, chairman of the RSC, which also called this week for $2.5 trillion in cuts over next 10 years. A five-year freeze is like “someone consuming 10,000 calories a day who decides to lose weight by freezing consumption at that level.”

Freshman Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky released a plan this week calling for $500 billion in cuts in the current year. On Wednesday, 21 GOP senators introduced a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

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