House GOP leaders drop plans for across-the-board budget cuts

Faced with a lack of party unanimity, House Republican leaders have decided to temporarily drop plans to include across-the-board cuts to fiscal 2006 discretionary spending as part of an amendment to the budget resolution.

The amendment is still expected to call for $50 billion in entitlement cuts, up from $35 billion in the original budget blueprint, and could be on the floor as early as Thursday.

But the disagreement over across-the-board cuts in discretionary programs illustrates the difficulty GOP leaders will have in rounding up votes, even for a largely symbolic measure. And a new coalition of left-leaning groups is already targeting GOP moderates in their own backyards to oppose the plan.

Across-the-board cuts might still be implemented during final spending negotiations. But there was internal disagreement Monday about what discretionary programs might be exempt from cuts.

For example, there are constituencies pushing exemptions for everything from defense to education, said Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., a member of the GOP whip team.

There was also an argument, backed by House appropriators, that committing so soon to a specified across-the-board cut would hamper negotiations with the Senate on fiscal 2006 spending bills, said GOP Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce of Ohio.

But scrapping the plan to go ahead with discretionary cuts might be controversial among party conservatives. "If we can't do that, we're in a deeper hole than we thought," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a member of the influential Republican Study Committee, who declined to say how he would vote on a pared-down budget amendment.

Meanwhile, the Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities this week plans a grassroots and public relations campaign aimed at 13 largely moderate House Republicans, which the group hopes might be moved to vote against the budget amendment.

"We think they are among the moderate Republicans who would blanch and would be uneasy at the cuts being called for in the resolution," campaign spokesman Brad Woodhouse said. "These are among what we believe are the most persuadable people to switch their vote, or the people we need to persuade to hold their vote to affect the outcome."

The 13 members are Reps. Bob Beauprez, R-Colo., a gubernatorial contender in 2006, Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., Jeb Bradley, R-N.H., Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., Michael Castle, R-Del., Mike Ferguson, R-N.J., Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., Jim Leach, R-Iowa, Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., Fred Upton, R-Mich., Gerald Weller, R-Ill., and Heather Wilson, R-N.M.

The Senate has no plans to take up a similar budget amendment, and is embarking on the regularly scheduled reconciliation process beginning today. Senate Republicans are looking for additional budget cuts, however, and the White House is assembling a rescission package of its own.

In an interview Monday, Castle -- president of the Republican Main Street Partnership and a leader among House GOP moderates -- said increased entitlement cuts would be difficult to swallow.

"Those cuts will fall disproportionately on middle- to low-income people, something that will give moderates pause," Castle said, especially if the Senate does not act on a similar budget-cutting exercise. "The Senate is being irresponsible if they don't take up something. It's exasperating if that happens" and House lawmakers were forced to vote on the spending cut package regardless.

An ECAP memo that was distributed Friday to the group's state chapters described the House action this week as a "big test vote" on proposed tax and spending cuts. The memo said the campaign would target the 13 members with "stepped up activity next week -- including grassroots activity in their districts, office visits, protests, phone calls."

The campaign is backed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, among others, and it borrows some of the grassroots organization and media tactics employed earlier this year by Americans United to Protect Social Security.

In addition to the 13 Republican, ECAP has plans to be active in 31 states and hopefully influence 60 to 70 House members on the proposed cuts. Among its tactics is an "online march," which organizers say has attracted 10,000 participants to send messages and to the White House and Congress.

ECAP plans to send the collected messages to President Bush and GOP leaders today.

A spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., downplayed the potential impact. "This group wants to say no when it comes to fiscal responsibility," he said. "What would be more important is to find out what they're for, rather than what they're against."

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