The chasm between what the House and Senate find acceptable on federal spending widened on Thursday when House Republicans appeared to coalesce around seeking $100 billion in cuts compared to President Obama's fiscal 2011 budget request.
The GOP-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate were already far apart when House appropriators last week proposed a plan to cut $73.6 billion compared to Obama's fiscal 2011 request, including a $58 billion drop from Obama's nonsecurity spending request and a $15.6 billion reduction in security spending.
The plan was cast as a down payment on a campaign pledge to reduce nonsecurity discretionary spending to fiscal 2008 levels, which is about $100 billion less than Obama's fiscal 2011 budget.
But several conservative House Republicans revolted at a GOP caucus meeting on Wednesday morning, sending Republican appropriators back to the drawing board, according to a party aide.
On Wednesday night, they added $26 billion more in nonsecurity discretionary funds for a total of $84 billion.
As word leaked out on Thursday, the reaction from Senate Democrats was quick and to the point: unacceptable. And with the current continuing resolution set to expire on March 4, there is little time to reconcile.
"Our goal and our charge aren't to cut billions of dollars just to say we did," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Thursday on the Senate floor. "We need to think about what we're cutting, and make sure those cuts aren't counterproductive. We need to pay attention to the quality of these cuts, not just the quantity."
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who is chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Center, said: "They are blindly swinging a meat axe to the budget when they should be using a scalpel. Some of these House Republicans won't be satisfied with anything less than a shutdown of the government."
Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said he couldn't comment on the GOP's $100 billion cut plan because the details haven't been released. But he reiterated his prediction that there would be another short-term CR because there is not enough time before March 4 for the House to pass its package and to work out a compromise with the Senate.
Inouye's comment came after he met with House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., off the House floor during votes. He declined to discuss his meeting with Rogers other than to say, half jokingly, that "It was a social call."
House GOP leaders appear to be treading a fine line as they seek to please their new members, fresh from campaign victories fueled by promises to cut Washington spending, and the need to pass spending legislation that funds the remainder of the fiscal year by March 4. But the proposal, even more than before, could threaten to alienate moderate Republicans. With no Democrats expected to support it, the GOP moderate bloc is likely needed to pass the CR.
"I don't think the new number helps attract people," said Rep. Steven LaTourette of Ohio, a moderate Republican and a member of the Appropriations Committee, as he was entering a Thursday evening meeting of the House GOP caucus. He added that he is keeping an open mind and hoped to get more details in the meeting.
"We are here to talk about where they think they are today," LaTourette said. "Clearly, there are some things as a person from the Mid-Atlantic states who cares about the things that have been specifically targeted I am interested to hear what they have to say."
After the meeting, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said members "are coming around and uniting around" the $100 billion cut proposal, which he said would be the largest since World War II.
Cantor added that the $100 billion includes additional defense cuts. "We have said all along that everything is on the table.… No one can defend every dollar that is spent at the Pentagon and, yes, that is on the table as well."
One item that could be among the new cuts is the controversial alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, despite strong support from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, several sources said.
House Republican Appropriators' original proposal for the program included $450 million for the engine, which the Pentagon has said it does not want and cannot afford.
General Electric and Rolls Royce would build the second engine for the stealthy fighter in Ohio, while Connecticut-based Pratt & Whitney is on tap for the primary engine.
Both firms have mounted intense lobbying pushes in recent days and have particularly been targeting the offices of freshman GOP members. If the engine makes it through the budget-cutting drill unscathed, there will be an amendment on the floor striking the funding.
Supporters of the alternate engine tout the longtime cost savings generated by competition for the $100 billion engine market. But opponents say buying a second engine is not worth the $2.9 billion investment required over the next six years to continue development and begin initial production.
House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., said it will be an interesting vote next week as members are expected to be allowed to offer virtually any and all amendments. Asked if some members could get cold feet when the details are unveiled, he said, "Could be, we will have to wait and see."
Megan Scully contributed to this report.