House Republicans plan to try to slash $100 billion from the federal budget as early as January if they wrest power from Democrats in the midterm elections, setting up possible early showdowns with President Barack Obama on taxes and spending.
A Republican House takeover would thrust new committee heads, such as Rep. Dave Camp on the Ways and Means panel, into the spotlight within weeks — or days — of seizing their gavels in early January. They would confront quick political tests that could alienate independent voters and tea party activists alike, analysts said.
“The major issues are going to be fiscal, and fiscal issues are always contentious,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
Carrying out spending cuts that Republicans have pledged to seek, which would amount to 21 percent of the government’s so-called discretionary money pot, could prove politically difficult. Reducing funds for programs such as college loans for low-income students or medical research at the National Institutes of Health is harder than promising to do that on the campaign trail.
Republicans “will quickly find out that across-the-board cuts have political repercussions,” Pitney said.
A lame-duck session of Congress convening two weeks after the Nov. 2 elections will try to fund the government next year and deal with Bush-era tax cuts expiring Dec. 31. Prospective Republican House control could be an obstacle to Democrats in finishing that work before adjourning. Camp and other Republicans would then need to grapple with those tasks as they take over, even as they push their promised budget cuts.
The backdrop is a federal deficit that the Congressional Budget Office said totaled $1.29 trillion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. At 8.9 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, it was the second-biggest shortfall since 1945.
The following reviews the battle lines likely to be drawn in top House committees under Republican rule, and looks at the potential panel leaders who would preside over the fights:
Appropriations — If Democrats fail to fund the government through September 2011, the end of the federal fiscal year, this committee would be the stage for that fight in the new Congress. And settling on the panel’s chairman would be one of the initial tasks facing Republicans.
House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio, his party’s speaker-in-waiting, called for the $100 billion budget cut on Sept. 23 as part of a governing agenda aimed at wooing voters. The cuts, which weren’t specified, would come from the $477 billion Congress allocated in 2010 for non-defense domestic discretionary programs. Social Security and Medicare are among the programs excluded from the proposed 21 percent reductions in discretionary spending.
Obama’s request for $73.4 billion for the Department of Education in the 2011 budget, including $23 billion for Pell Grants to help low-income students afford college, offers one example of the tough choices the Republicans would face. A 21 percent cut across-the-board would take about $15 billion from education. A 21 percent cut in Pell Grants would subtract almost $5 billion from the program.
HHS Budget — Obama asked Congress for $76.4 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services. Almost half that — $32 billion — is for the National Institutes of Health, which includes the National Cancer Institute and other research facilities. A 21 percent cut would slash NIH funding by more $6 billion.
The question of which Republican would lead the Appropriations panel is complicated by the six-year limit the party placed on how long a lawmaker could serve as its leading member on a committee.
Rep. Jerry Lewis, a California Republican, reaches that limit at year’s end. He has said he will seek a waiver to allow him to take the committee’s helm.
Lewis, 76, initially balked when Boehner pushed House Republicans to embrace a moratorium on lawmaker-sponsored projects, known as earmarks. Lewis reversed his position last year, gaining favor with Boehner.
Repr. Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, would be the likely committee head if Lewis fails in his bid. Rogers, 72, is known for steering funding for road improvements and other projects to his state and district. The Lexington, Ky., Herald Leader once dubbed him the “Prince of Pork.”
Financial Services — Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama has two years left as the leading Republican on this panel, putting him in line for the chairmanship. Boehner’s staff members tried to oust him two years ago for his handling of negotiations over the Troubled Asset Relief Program — they thought he agreed to a deal that they’d rejected. At this point, it looks like Bachus, 62, will avoid another challenge.
Still, the panel’s Republican membership, currently dominated by small-government, free-market advocates, could be reshuffled. Some of the 29 Republican members are expected to move to Ways and Means, particularly if their party wins the majority. And as the majority, Republicans could fill at least 12 additional slots on the financial services panel. It would be a plum assignment for freshmen who might face a tough contest two years from now, since the committee has become a good place to raise campaign cash.
The panel would be the scene for any move to revamp mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Republicans want to limit the government’s exposure to their loan portfolios.
While some Republicans talk of trying to repeal the president’s financial-markets overhaul, the party may resist that, given the virtual certainty of an Obama veto.
Ways and Means — Camp, of Michigan, typically favors policy debates over political sniping. He has the closest thing to a chairmanship lock on any of the so-called “A” committees, which include Appropriations and Energy and Commerce.
Should the lame-duck Congress end up deadlocked over extending the income tax cuts enacted under former President George W. Bush, Camp’s panel would be at the center of resolving the impasse. Republicans want to extend the cuts across the board, contending that would aid a U.S. economy struggling to grow after the longest recession in seven decades. Democrats want to limit the extensions, continuing the lower rates for individual income up to $200,000 and up to $250,000 for couples filing jointly.
Camp, 57, has advocated making all the cuts permanent.
Budget — One of the few Republicans offering concrete proposals for cutting federal spending has been Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who would take the helm of the Budget Committee.
His “Roadmap for America’s Future” would establish a voucher system for Medicare, scrap the current tax exemptions for employer-sponsored health benefits in favor of individual tax credits, and let workers under the age of 55 steer a portion of their Social Security taxes into private accounts.
The plan elevated Ryan, 40, from an up-and-comer to a full-fledged political star. It also became a punching bag for Democrats, and some Republicans distanced themselves from its proposals, concerned they would be viewed as too extreme by independent voters. How vigorously Ryan promotes his ideas in committee should provide early clues of how much sway the tea party push for significantly limited government has gained.
Energy and Commerce — Rep. Joe Barton of Texas is term-limited as the top Republican on this panel, leaving three others likely to vie for the chairmanship: John Shimkus, 52, of Illinois; Cliff Stearns, 69, of Florida; and Fred Upton, 57, of Michigan, whose seniority on the committee gives him an edge.
The panel oversees the Department of Health and Human Services, which would give it a primary role in any bid to “repeal and replace” the healthcare overhaul Obama got enacted this year. The committee could also keep a spotlight on the law — and make changes to it — through hearings on new rules the department will be writing to implement it.
Additionally, the panel has authority over the healthcare industry, the energy sector, the telecommunications industry, and commercial products, including tobacco.
Upton, a journalism major at the University of Michigan, worked in the Office of Management and Budget under former President Ronald Reagan. He has taken some positions, such as supporting stem-cell research, that put him at odds with most of his Republican colleagues.
Oversight and Government Reform — Chairmanship of this panel would give Rep. Darrell Issa of California subpoena power over the Obama administration in a Republican House, handing him a political tool he has said he would use.
Issa, 56, said he wants to work with Obama aides to probe the Minerals and Management Service and its cozy relationship with the industries it oversees.
Bipartisan comity might be tough to muster, though, if Issa also demands testimony from Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner about government bailouts of Wall Street and the auto industry, or pushes to subpoena White House officials about job offers made to Democrats who challenged incumbent senators in primaries.
Judiciary — Any overhaul of immigration laws must go through this panel, which Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas would preside over. Smith, whose first House race in 1986 was run by Republican political strategist Karl Rove, wants to shelve any discussion on such matters as a boost in visas for legal immigrant workers and a pathway to legal permanent residency for some of the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to focus solely on securing the border with Mexico.
“I’m still of the mind that we have to secure the border first,” said Smith, 62.
Transportation and Infrastructure — Obama has made infrastructure spending a priority, proposing a public-private fund to invest in roads, railways and an updated air-traffic control system.
Rep. John Mica of Florida would likely head this committee for the Republicans. Mica, 67, supports focusing high-speed rail construction in the Northeast and opposes lines in Ohio and California that Obama has proposed. Mica also wants to speed the approval process for federal road-building projects.
Armed Services — Congress continues to grapple with whether to overturn the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which allows gay and lesbian soldiers to serve on condition they don’t reveal their sexual orientation. Under a Republican majority, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California would oversee this panel’s debate on the issue.
McKeon, 72, has opposed previous efforts to kill the policy, most recently saying no change should be made until the Pentagon issues a report in December on attitudes within the ranks on such a move.
Foreign Affairs — Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-born Floridian who in 1982 became the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress, would head this committee. The issues facing it include whether to impose future sanctions on Iran.
Ros-Lehtinen, 58, is a staunch supporter of Israel. In an Oct. 20 speech, she said “extremists target Israeli citizens and seek Israel’s destruction. The UN isolates and demonizes the Jewish state.”
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