House Republicans battle turmoil within ranks
WASHINGTON — Under pressure to make deeper spending cuts and blindsided by embarrassing floor defeats, House Republican leaders are quickly discovering the limits of control over their ideologically driven and independent-minded new majority.
For the second consecutive day, House Republicans on Wednesday lost a floor vote due to a mini-revolt, this time over a plan to demand a repayment from the United Nations. Earlier in the day, members of the party's conservative bloc used a closed-door party meeting to push the leadership to go well beyond its plans to trim about $40 billion from domestic spending and foreign aid this year, demanding $100 billion or more.
The spending rebellion came after the House on Tuesday rejected what was expected to be a routine temporary extension of anti-terrorism Patriot Act provisions when Democrats and about two dozen conservative Republicans balked at a fast-track procedure. Republicans, still searching for their footing after assuming control in January, were also forced to pull a trade assistance bill from the floor after conservatives raised objections. They found themselves mediating other internal fights as well.
Speaker John A. Boehner conceded that the fledgling majority was encountering turbulence.
''We have been in the majority four weeks," Boehner said. "We are not going to be perfect every day."
The image of Republican turmoil was heightened Wednesday when Rep. Christopher Lee, a second-term Republican from upstate New York, resigned after a disclosure by a website, Gawker.com, that he had sent embarrassing photographs and misrepresented himself to a woman he contacted through Craigslist. His decision came after discussions with the leadership.
The fraying of party unity, if not of a scale or intensity that imperils Boehner's ability to advance the main elements of his agenda, nonetheless stood in sharp contrast to the record of Republicans in remaining remarkably united against President Barack Obama and the Democrats over the past two years.
The infighting foreshadowed potential difficulties for Republicans in holding their troops together for clashes with the White House and the Democratically controlled Senate as well as their ability to corral reluctant Republicans to vote to increase the federal debt limit.
The looser party discipline reflected Boehner's approach of allowing a more open atmosphere on the House floor and of, in his words, letting the House work its will even if events do not always unfold smoothly.
But the leadership was clearly surprised by the resistance to a measure to provide aid to workers displaced by new trade agreements and the Patriot Act renewal, two measures deemed so noncontroversial that they were brought to the floor under an expedited process that requires a two-thirds majority for passage. Republicans said they had not even considered it necessary to aggressively court support.
The willingness to buck the leadership was not unexpected given the size of the Republican freshman class, 87 new members, and the fact that newcomers and many veterans felt empowered by election results they read as a mandate to push spending cuts and shake up Congress.
"It is going to take a while for them to find their way," said Rep. John B. Larson of Connecticut, chairman of the Democratic Caucus. "For so many of their new members, discipline within the party and allegiance to a party doesn't mean an awful lot."
The push for deeper spending cuts could be the most serious issue for Republican leaders at the moment since they have to find a level of savings that can offer some chance of a compromise with the Senate and Obama, who had House leaders to the White House on Wednesday for what was described as a productive lunch.
In advance of a planned release Thursday of the House Republican plan to finance the government through Sept. 30, members of the Appropriations Committee on Wednesday disclosed some of the cuts that lawmakers were proposing.
Among 60 programs in line for elimination were the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, AmeriCorps and a $298 million Clinton-era program for hiring local police officers. Other planned cutbacks included nearly $900 million in energy conservation and efficiency programs; $1.8 billion from the Environmental Protection Agency; and $75 million from legal-aid programs. In a swipe at the administration, the bill would eliminate $5 billion in high-speed rail money.
"Make no mistake, these cuts are not low-hanging fruit," said Rep. Hal Rogers, Republican of Kentucky and chairman of the Appropriations Committee. "These cuts are real and will impact every district across the country — including my own."
But during the closed party meeting, other Republicans said the cuts were too timid and that the party needed to reach the $100 billion decrease Republicans had pledged before proposing to pro-rate the cuts since the government was nearly halfway through its fiscal year.
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said Republicans should propose an across-the-board reduction if necessary to meet the $100 billion level.
"We said we would do it, and so we should," Flake said.
But Rogers and other Republicans warned that doubling the cuts could have substantial consequences for federal agencies, resulting in layoffs and furloughs of federal law enforcement officers and air traffic controllers, steep cuts in education and medical research programs and major changes at the Food and Drug Administration.
Democrats also dug in against the proposals.
"The Republican plan will cost jobs, undercut American innovation and clean energy, jeopardize our safety by taking cops off the street, and threaten investments in rebuilding America — at a time when our economy can least afford it," Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, said.
But Republicans have succeeded in shifting the focus to budget cutting so sufficiently that the White House will propose an array of cuts in the budget for next year that Obama sends to Capitol Hill on Monday.
Administration officials confirmed Wednesday that the budget would propose to cut in half, to nearly $2.6 billion in fiscal year 2012, a federal program that subsidizes energy costs for low-income households.
The big reduction for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program immediately drew protests from lawmakers and antipoverty groups, as have several other cuts the administration has previewed for community service and environmental programs.
Despite concerns about cutting too deeply, Republican leaders met Wednesday night in an effort to review ways to produce more savings and mollify conservative critics. But any efforts to do so are likely to make it more difficult to reach agreement with the Senate and White House, increasing chances for a series of temporary stopgap spending bills or an impasse that could lead to a government shutdown.