Alex Brandon/AP/File
House Speaker John Boehner has promised an open debate about the federal budget next week, allowing Democrats as well as Republicans to challenge and amend the spending limits set by House leadership.

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.

After voting together on issues ranging from repeal of health-care reform to ending taxpayer funding of presidential campaigns, House Republicans are struggling to close rifts in their new majority over this year’s projected $1.5 trillion deficit.

At issue is how fast and how far to rein in the size and scope of government. House GOP leaders propose cutting $32 billion from current spending levels. The Appropriations panel is on track to release draft legislation laying out new spending proposals to reach this goal on Thursday.

But many conservatives, especially tea party freshman, want significantly deeper cuts – closer to the $100 billion level promised in last fall’s GOP Pledge to America. The projected deficit for FY 2011 is $180 billion higher than the deficit in FY 2010.

Last month, 86 GOP conservatives signed a letter to Speaker John Boehner calling for the full $100 billion. Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, who founded the Tea Party Caucus, says that the Congress should aim for $500 billion in cuts for fiscal year 2011, to jump start the massive cuts needed to rein in a $1.5 trillion deficit.

“If the original bill does not get all the way to $100 billion in savings, we plan to offer an amendment that closes the gap,” says Brian Straessle, a spokesman for the 176-member Republican Study Committee, the conservative wing of the House Republican caucus.

Blue Dogs challenge Democrats

Meanwhile, Democrats are coping with rifts in their own ranks. Seventeen fiscally conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats voted with Republicans last month to bring spending back to levels to 2008 levels, before the stimulus spending of the Obama administration.

Speaker Boehner has promised a rare, open debate on federal spending levels next week, giving both Democrats and Republicans a chance to offer amendments on spending levels.

“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.

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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