House Republicans are hurtling toward a collision with Obama Democrats as they prepare to launch a major defunding offensive tomorrow on energy programs, U.S. EPA and mass transportation projects -- cornerstones of the president's agenda.
The effort to cut $100 billion from the budget for the remaining fiscal year marks the Republicans' first test at leading a majority energized by freshman conservatives elected, in many cases, after attacking climate policies and runaway government spending last year.
The challenge now for House leadership will be to push the limits on defunding demanded by their tea party members without conceding valuable ground in negotiations with the Senate. That could quickly be perceived as a political defeat, some analysts say.
There's also the risk of going too far, and grinding budget discussions between the chambers to a halt. The temporary spending law for the current fiscal year expires March 4. One possibility is a short-term extension. Another outcome could force the government to close, but that is something that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) wants to avoid, his lieutenants say.
Senate Democrats are already taunting the House for pursuing an "extreme agenda" that flirts with federal shutdown. They describe themselves, meanwhile, as the party of responsible adults.
"I think the Democrats are kind of daring the Republicans to keep cutting, keep cutting, keep cutting, because it'll look like they're doing something extreme," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the nonpartisan Concord Coalition, an anti-deficit group. "Even if the Senate is willing to come down to a $20 billion cut, which would be pretty substantial, it would look like Republicans had given up 80 percent of their position."
Blocking climate regulations not worth a shutdown
The House released its epic cutting plan late Friday, after pressure from conservatives forced leadership to mine deeper into programs. The seven-month budget plan proposes slashing energy and water programs $5.4 billion, or 15 percent below President Obama's 2011 request. Energy efficiency and renewable energy funding is reduced $899 million, science spending is cut by $1.1 billion, and Department of Energy loan guarantees shrink by $1.4 billion.
"These cuts go far and wide, and will affect every community in the nation," Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said in a statement. "These were hard decisions, and I know many people will not be happy with everything we've proposed in this package."
EPA is stripped of $3 billion and climate change programs across the government received special attention from the Republicans, who propose diminishing them by $107 million, nearly a third below last year's level.
The bill zeroes out funding for EPA's greenhouse gas rules, a move to delay the development and enforcement of those rules through September. That could give the GOP time to push legislation permanently prohibiting EPA from pursuing carbon regulations.
It was unclear as late as Friday afternoon if Republican leaders would permit that controversial initiative to be included in the continuing resolution. Its inclusion promises to ratchet up partisan tensions around the bill, while perhaps providing another opportunity for the Senate to cast a vote limiting EPA's authority on emissions.
If, somehow, the final budget bill suspends EPA's climate regulations, it goes to the desk of Obama, who has indicated he would veto the attempt. That's another scenario that could close the government. But Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing EPA, said the GOP would likely allow EPA to continue its carbon rules rather than risk a government shutdown.
"I don't think we would allow the government to be shut down over this [EPA] issue, because there's a lot of different ways we can attack this," he said Friday.
Focus on deficit, not home projects
Republicans began their budget slicing at a slower pace, launching a plan on Feb. 3 to undertake historic cuts of $32 billion for the remaining year, or $74 billion below Obama's 2011 budget plan. The party's 87 freshmen, however, prevailed in forcing their leaders to abide by a campaign promise to slash $100 billion from Obama's 2011 budget proposal, or $60 billion for the remaining year.
If the cuts pass, they would affect clean energy programs, and others, in the states of conservative lawmakers. But for now, many freshmen appear to be motivated less by home state economics and more by reducing the deficit.
"To the extent that we focus on specific projects, we lose sight of the goal," Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said when asked if he was concerned about hurting South Carolina companies. "The faster we start cutting, the quicker we get to a real financial stability that undergirds future projects."
South Carolina is near the top among states in producing nuclear energy. The continuing resolution seeks to cut nuclear power programs by $169 million. But it supports Yucca Mountain, a proposed radioactive waste depository, by prohibiting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from terminating the program's license review.
Other freshmen said they support the $100 billion goal, but indicated that the cuts should be thoughtful. That might be interpreted by some as room for negotiation on the size and scope of the defunding blitz.
"These are much-needed cuts," said Chris Sanders, a spokesman for Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.), a member of the Budget Committee.
Still, "He doesn't want to have a detrimental effect on the energy situation in the state of Indiana," Sanders added. "He will be looking at those issues as they go forward for the continuing resolution as well as next year's budget."
Obama and 'responsible' Democrats
Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.), who had Obama autograph his Green Bay Packers tie at the White House Super Bowl party, said he would be "negligent" by failing to support the $100 billion spending cut, given the Election Day message.
But he carefully noted that just because "the number is right," that doesn't necessarily mean every budget decrease is. He's against an across the board cut, and he wants to see the list of reductions before deciding "whether or not I can support those individual cuts."
Ribble's district encompasses sprawling countryside leading to the Western shore of Lake Michigan. It is home to several commercial wind farms, and the state recently pursued uniform siting rules to attract more.
Could the budget cuts for renewable energy add discomfort to his visits home?
"It's not particularly uncomfortable," Ribble said of the cuts. "Because when you get to the companies that are building large wind farms in Northeast Wisconsin, these guys are pretty sophisticated energy producers as it is, and they also recognize as business owners the budget constraints that Congress is facing."
While the fight over the remaining fiscal year's funding is beginning, today Obama launches his proposed budget for fiscal 2012, which starts in October, a move that will probably set off another round of budget-cutting attempts.
The president has already begun to parry Republican attacks on his spending initiatives. He used his Saturday radio address to say that responsible families cut back on spending so they can afford crucial expenses, like college tuition.
"Well, it's time Washington acted as responsibly as our families do," Obama said. "And on Monday, I'm proposing a new budget that will help us live within our means while investing in our future."
For the president, that means new funding for things like clean energy and transportation infrastructure.