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Republicans vs. Republicans: When are federal budget cuts too deep?

House Republican leadership wants to rein in the federal budget by $32 billion from current spending levels. But some of the rank-and-file want $100 billion in cuts – or more.

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“The open process is going to allow members such as the Blue Dogs – who I have read recently are also considering that they may join us in actually cutting spending – it will allow them to propose their spending cuts, as well as perhaps some in the progressive caucus on the other side, so that perhaps we could find some common ground, realizing the necessity for us to cut spending coming out of Washington so we can grow this economy,” said House majority leader Eric Cantor at a press briefing Tuesday.

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The debate over current year spending cuts is a harbinger of a tougher battle, expected as early as late April, on raising the $14.3 trillion national debt limit, which many GOP freshmen campaigned to oppose. Boehner, who supports raising the debt limit, says it will be an “adult moment” for the Congress, because the consequences of a government shutdown would be so damaging to the nation.

Capitol Hill culture shift

GOP senators say that the culture of Washington on spending is shifting in the Senate, where Republicans are still in the minority.

“This debate has completely changed,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, in a floor speech on Tuesday. “Two years ago, the president and Democrats running Congress weren’t debating whether to cut spending. They were debating how much to spend…. Today, the only debate is how much to cut.”

Speaking at a tea party rally in Washington on Tuesday night, GOP Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee of Utah called for a balanced-budget amendment. “Congress has to be put in a straight jacket,” said Senator Lee, whose defeat of three-term Sen. Robert Bennett (R) in last year’s Utah Republican primary stunned the GOP national establishment. Senator Hatch faces reelection in 2012 and is reaching out to tea party activists in advance of that campaign.

Still, the forces driving up federal spending are formidable, analysts say. “Spending in the budget is going to go up, interest on the debt is going to go up, Social Security, Medicare, defense, even agricultural price supports will probably all be going up,” says Stan Collender, a budget analyst at Qorvis Communications in Washington.

“The only place they’re talking about holding the line and trying to spend less is less than one-tenth of all spending,” he adds.

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