Republicans controlling the House are opting for the politically safe route as they follow up their tightfisted, tea party-driven budget with less controversial steps to cut spending.
Instead of big reductions in Medicaid and Medicare, top GOP lawmakers are sticking mostly with familiar proposals like cutting money for President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and federal employee pensions while reaching out to Democrats to help pass annual spending bills.
At issue is follow-up legislation to the sweeping budget document that passed the House last month. Under Congress' arcane budget process, it's simply a nonbinding blueprint that sets the terms for follow-up legislation.
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The broader GOP plan, by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., also calls for cutting day-to-day operating budgets for domestic agencies $19 billion below last summer's bipartisan budget and debt deal.
Republicans strongly backed the Ryan plan last month as a first step in tackling out of control deficits. It's also a campaign document that casts in stark relief the differences between Republicans and Democrats on spending and deficits with an election little more than six months away.
But steps to actually try to pass the full Ryan budget into law aren't happening; with Obama in the White House and Democrat controlling the Senate, any attempt to follow up the Ryan plan with binding legislation is doomed to fail. So GOP leaders like Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, appear to have decided that there's no sense in making GOP lawmakers walk the plank and cast numerous politically dangerous votes on issues like Medicare.
Still, conservatives are enthusiastic about the cuts, though they pale in comparison to what's in store if Republicans win the Senate and take back the White House.
"It is, to a certain extent, an introduction to what we might go through next year if the elections go the way we want," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C.
What the Republicans are doing now is hardly unusual. Democrats in the Senate aren't pressing ahead at all on the budget, fearful of politically risky votes.
But the differences between the Ryan budget and the follow-up legislation are dramatic nonetheless. First up is legislation to cut $261 billion from benefit programs over the coming decade. The budgets for such programs are generally on autopilot, determined by eligibility criteria instead of by annual spending bills. The cuts pale compared to the $5 trillion in spending the GOP budgets proposes to whack from Obama's proposals over the same period.
Republicans are limiting other implementing legislation to a series of mostly familiar proposals, like cutting money from Obama's health care and financial regulations, requiring federal workers to contribute more to their pensions, limiting damages in medical malpractice cases, and blocking illegal immigrants from claiming child credits in the form of tax refunds.
Those budget cuts each passed in various legislation last year, only to fail in the Democratic-controlled Senate. But they're resurfacing now as Republicans work to head off big cuts to the Pentagon and domestic agencies that are scheduled to take effect in January as a result of the failure of last year's deficit "supercommittee" to reach a deal.
To be sure, some of today's cuts are controversial. There's $36 billion in cuts to food stamps over a decade, and an effort to eliminate the Social Services Block Grant program, which helps fund a wide variety of programs like child care, adoption assistance and help for the disabled. And Republicans are trying to ease Medicaid "maintenance of effort" regulations that would allow states to drop hundreds of thousands of people from the program.
Such cuts have Democrats howling. They see a pattern of cutting programs for the poor to beef up the Pentagon. The New York Times editorial page weighed in Tuesday with an editorial assaulting Republicans for such "callous choices."
The Ryan budget, however, would cut far more deeply, proposing to turn Medicaid and food stamps into programs that would be delivered to states as a block grant, steps that would cost millions of poor people health care and food assistance. It also calls for transforming Medicare from a program in which the government directly pays doctor and hospital bills into a voucher-like system in which future seniors would receive subsidies to purchase health insurance on the open market.
That's a proposal that's far too politically radioactive for follow-up legislation, however, so Republicans are letting the nonbinding Ryan budget be the final word.
On a separate track, Republicans are reaching out to Democrats in follow-up legislation setting agency budgets, providing funding that's generally in line with the budget deal with Obama for energy and water development programs, NASA and the Justice and Commerce departments. To hit the budget goals set by this year's tougher GOP plan, the pragmatic-minded chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., is concentrating the cuts in a handful of the 12 spending bills while making sure others have enough money to win Democratic support.
On Tuesday, Rogers unveiled the broad outlines for this year's round of spending bills, focusing cuts in legislation funding job training, education, health care and transportation and housing.
"We are committed to working together across the aisle and across both chambers to ensure continued funding for important government programs, projects, and services that the American people expect and deserve," Rogers said in a statement.
The release of an energy and water bill last week that maintains spending at current levels rather than cutting it has prompted speculation that Republicans are stacking the early calendar with bills with relatively few cuts. The theory is that the GOP is leaving those bearing a larger, unsustainable share of the cuts to wait until the end, with lawmakers planning on rescuing them with last-minute money reaped by going back to the higher limits from last summer.
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"We are ... going to be interested to see whether they frontload bills to make them more palatable, leaving little resources left for the bills that are scheduled to come at the end," said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
It's commonly assumed, even by GOP lawmakers, that in the end the spending bills will conform to the higher, Obama-backed appropriations cap of 1.047 trillion instead of the $1.028 trillion included in this year's GOP budget.
"To the extent that they do anything that looks more like (last year's budget deal) as opposed to the Ryan budget, that's not going to be acceptable to conservatives," said Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action, which advocates for conservative policies on Capitol Hill.