‘Compassionate Conservatives’ Restore Needed Cuts
Policy + Politics

‘Compassionate Conservatives’ Restore Needed Cuts

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A marathon frenzy of voting in the House drew to a close late Thursday night with GOP leaders certain to achieve the $61 billion in massive cuts to domestic and foreign aid programs they promised as part of a 359-page continuing resolution that would fund the government through September.

But far from marching in lockstep with their leaders, rank and file Republicans repeatedly showed independence in choosing among the vast menu of cuts, and many occasionally sided with Democrats in saving popular programs from the chopping block. While the new House Republican majority has vowed to bring down the deficit and shrink government, when push came to shove, many of them voted the interests of their constituents.

Especially on programs involving homeland security, community policing, economic development grants and special education – just to name a few – Republicans were willing to join forces with Democrats to restore the funds.

“Certainly in some cases you had parochial interest aligning with fiscal interest,” said Steve Ellis, vice president for Tax Payers for Common Sense, a watchdog organization.

‘When we say we're going to cut spending,
read my lips: We're going to cut spending.’

Faced with a March 4 deadline for passing a spending plan for the remainder of the fiscal year, House members have held free-wheeling debates, often into the wee hours of the morning, on a list of 583 amendments added to the current continuing resolution that is keeping the government operating.  House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, did something unusual earlier this week by throwing the debate open to an unlimited number of amendments. “Let’s have a policy debate out in the open, on the House floor, and let the House work its will,” he said earlier this week.

Yesterday, Boehner stoked the fire to reach an agreement on the bill when he ruled out the possibility of a short-term stop-gap measure to fund the government.  “I am not going to move any kind of short-term CR at current levels,” Boehner told reporters. “When we say we're going to cut spending, read my lips: We're going to cut spending.”

But steering the new Republican majority ship in the House has not been easy, with many conservative and tea party members speaking out and voting as they see fit. Boehner himself learned the hard way on Wednesday when a bipartisan coalition of House deficit hawks and proponents of smaller defense budgets voted 233-198 to cancel development of a backup engine for the F-35 joint strike fighter  -- a project supported by the speaker.

The vote came on an amendment sponsored by Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., which removed the $450 million slated in this year's budget for the continued design and testing of the engine. A shutdown would affect approximately 800 jobs at a General Electric plant in southwest Ohio, near Boehner’s district, a few miles of the family bar where he worked growing up. Joining with 123 Democrats were 110 Republicans who opposed the $3 billion engine program.

‘I want to lose weight but I know I can’t lose
100 pounds by Saturday. We are going
to cut back and do it in a responsible way.’

As the saying goes, politics can make for strange bedfellows. Republicans came to Washington last November on a wave of cutting spending and quickly slashing the federal deficit, which is estimated to reach $1.6 trillion this year. Now that they are faced with scores of important votes, Republicans–including many of the hard-line freshmen—are showing a willingness to work with Democrats to protect interests in their home districts.

But some Republicans don’t agree with that characterization. “I don’t think I’ve seen a shift of alliance,” Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., told The Fiscal Times.  “We’ve made a lot of cuts already. It’s like me, I want to lose weight but I know I can’t lose 100 pounds by Saturday. We are going to cut back and do it in a responsible way.”

“It may appear there is a shifting alliances on the outside but it’s really members doing what they think is best for the country in the long range,” he added.

Whatever the motivation, here are a few examples of House members crossing the aisle to work to restore spending cuts:

  • Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., gained support from GOP moderates to restore $298 million for the Community Oriented Policing Services or COPS program with a 228-203 vote. This was an initiative under President Bill Clinton providing grants for hiring 100,000 additional police officers that would have been terminated.
  • More than half of the Republicans supported an amendment by Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., to restore $510 million in Homeland security grants to help fire departments train and equip firefighters.
  • Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, won a vote Wednesday to restore $80 million for economic development grants. Michaud says his amendment is fully paid for by reducing funding for a periodic Census programs account, which is funded at over $900 million. “At a time when our states, local communities and businesses continue to struggle, it’s the wrong time to be cutting programs that are proven job creators. Budgets are about priorities, and we must insist that our investments are focused on job creation,” Michaud said on the House floor.
  • Republicans were queasy at the $558 million in proposed cuts to special education to help students with learning disabilities and restored the money with a 249-179 vote.
  • A proposed $447 million cut to Amtrak's budget was squashed with a 250-176 vote on Thursday.

Under the new rules of debate, if a program is preserved, funding needs to be cut elsewhere. Rep. Charles Bass, R-N.H., attempted and failed to restore $50 million of a $390 million cut from the CR to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), a heating subsidy for the poor. Bass sought cuts in drug abuse and mental health money to pay for it, which was a tough sell to fellow members. Bass said he was disappointed his amendment didn’t pass especially in light of the tough winter in New England which has left families struggling to pay high energy bills.

When passed, the measure will be sent to the Senate for consideration the week of Feb. 28. If an agreement isn’t reached by both houses before a March 4 deadline, when government funding expires, Congress can pass a series of extended resolutions or face the possibility of government shutdown, which both parties have repeatedly stressed they want to avoid.

Related Links
GOP Nears Passage of Massive Budget-Cutting Bill (The Washington Post)
House Forges Ahead on Spending Cuts (New York Times) 
Republican Centrists Join Democrats on Cuts (POLITICO)