The idea of retroactively cutting money that has been approved but not yet spent is one of several options under consideration, according to a GOP aide. By reaching backward to find savings, Republicans would be able to spread out their cuts over several more months, a much easier course than cramming all of them into the second half of this fiscal year.
But the move could also partly invalidate a rationale for not slashing the full $100 billion that Republicans had earlier promised to strip from discretionary, non-defense spending in their first year. In recent weeks, Republican lawmakers said that because current appropriations already cover the first half of the year, they had no choice but to prorate the cuts and thus arrive at a lower total figure for the fiscal year. But if lawmakers can claw back spending, that reasoning would at least partly disintegrate, perhaps putting pressure on Republicans to raise the total level of cuts to compensate.
Other options include passing a separate package of rescissions or including at least one full appropriations bill -- possibly the Defense spending measure -- along with a new catch-all continuing resolution that would fund all of the remaining government agencies.
Discussions on how to proceed and where to cut are continuing, according to aides, and no decisions have been made. Republicans are discussing the options at their retreat this week in Baltimore.
Including cuts in a new continuing resolution appears to have an advantage over passing a slew of separate rescission bills, which some Republicans favor for symbolic reasons but which would stand little chance of passing the Democratically controlled Senate. Senate leaders would be unlikely take up a package of GOP rescissions unless the threat of a government shutdown forced their hand.
Tying a package of rescissions to a new spending bill that finances the government through the end of this fiscal year could make it easier for Republicans to vote for an increase in the debt ceiling without provoking a rebellion by conservative lawmakers backed by the tea party movement.
"They need to lay the seeds before the debt-limit vote," said one lobbyist who has been following the discussions closely.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner warned last week that the nation will hit its debt limit as soon as the end of March. A vote to raise the ceiling is expected to test the Republican leadership's ability to balance the GOP base's demand for deep spending reductions with the responsibilities of governing.
Other issues being ironed out by the Republican Conference include the final target for cuts and efforts to avoid furloughing government workers, a drastic step that the party's leadership is eager to avoid. Given the depth of the cuts, the maneuver would show that leaders are ready "to make some really tough policy decisions," a GOP aide said.
The aide's comments come after House and Senate Republicans last month forced Democrats to abandon a bill that would have funded the government through the end of this fiscal year and instead pass a short-term measure that would make it possible for GOP lawmakers to push through deep spending cuts immediately.
Democrats had sought to pass an omnibus measure -- made up of all 12 annual appropriations bills -- but Republicans killed the proposal after pulling back their initial support. The move required Democrats to support the temporary spending measure to stave off a government shutdown.
Clifford Marks contributed to this report.