Don’t Call It a ‘Cut’: G.O.P. Tries to Rebrand Its Plan to Reduce Spending

WASHINGTON — In 2011, as a wave of populist fervor swept through Congress, delivering a restive class of anti-spending Republicans who had no appetite for raising the debt limit, House G.O.P. leaders rallied their members around a bill with a blunt, snappy slogan: “Cut, Cap and Balance.”

The phrase neatly encapsulated the unequivocal nature of the conditions Republicans were demanding in exchange for allowing the government to avoid a debt default. Their legislation — a purely symbolic measure that had no chance of enactment — would have slashed spending deeply enough to cut the deficit in half within a year, imposed austere caps on future federal spending, and required that Congress amend the Constitution to require a balanced budget before raising the debt limit.

Now, as another group of Republicans resists raising the debt ceiling, Speaker Kevin McCarthy has presented a list of spending demands that he hopes to push through the House along party lines as soon as Wednesday. But this time, in a bow to political reality and economic necessity, it is a substantial retreat from what hard-right Republicans once sought, and it carries a kinder, gentler catchphrase to match: the Limit, Save, Grow Act.

Mr. McCarthy and his team were still scrounging on Tuesday for the votes to pass the legislation, which would be dead on arrival in the Democratic-led Senate and at the White House, as President Biden’s advisers said on Tuesday that he would veto it. Mr. Biden has been calling on Republicans for months to raise the debt ceiling without conditions to avoid a catastrophic default that could come as soon as this summer.

The speaker was facing internal pushback on his plan from some conservatives who were demanding that the legislation contain stricter work requirements for government assistance programs, a change that could alienate politically vulnerable lawmakers in Democratic-leaning districts. And new obstacles emerged as a bloc of Midwestern lawmakers raised concerns about a measure in the bill that would repeal ethanol tax credits.

Mr. McCarthy, the California Republican, has expressed confidence that he will ultimately be able to push through the bill despite the party divides and his slim majority.

Still, the vast gulf between their debt limit slogan of a dozen years ago and the current G.O.P. mantra reflects how House Republicans have scaled back their fiscal ambitions and tried to put a softer, more appealing face on their demands.

Wary of subjecting their members from politically competitive areas to accusations of draconian cuts and cognizant of the economic perils of defaulting on the nation’s debt, Republicans have abandoned some of their most extreme proposals, including balancing the budget within 10 years, and repackaged the others as modest trims.

These days, Republicans have all but excised the phrase “spending cuts” from their lexicon. When Mr. McCarthy took to the House floor last week to announce the bill, he did not utter the term. Asked last week on CNBC where House Republicans planned to cut spending, Mr. McCarthy replied: “I don’t call them cuts because I call them savings.”

The bill planned for a vote this week would scale back federal spending to last year’s levels and impose caps after that — a nearly 14 percent reduction over a decade, according to an estimate on Tuesday by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office — and roll back major elements of President Biden’s landmark climate and health law, as well as his plan to cancel student debt.

Despite Mr. McCarthy’s queasiness about the word, the bill contains substantial cuts; White House budget officials called them “severe” and “devastating” in their veto warning on Tuesday. But the cuts are a far cry from what the G.O.P. once threatened.

The Congressional Budget Office said the bill would reduce the deficit by $4.8 trillion over the next decade.

On Capitol Hill, after failing to unite their members around a fiscal blueprint that would balance the budget in a decade, Republican leaders last week unveiled the Limit, Save, Grow Act, which would lift the debt ceiling for one year in exchange for the spending freeze at last year’s levels, stricter work requirements for social programs, and a host of regulatory rollbacks.

In the veto threat, White House officials called the bill “a reckless attempt to extract extreme concessions as a condition for the United States simply paying the bills it has already incurred.”

Maya MacGuineas, the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, praised Mr. McCarthy for staking out a position on spending that is “practical and achievable, as opposed to extreme positioning that will never actually work.”

The “Cut, Cap and Balance” plan sought to slash federal spending substantially as a share of the economy and quickly balance the budget — “goals that sound great, but just aren’t achievable,” Ms. MacGuineas said.

“This goal is to pare back spending aggressively without putting forth any of the really tough decisions that will be necessary,” she added. “And the way that they do it is by capping discretionary spending, which always sounds nice and neutral because you don’t have to say what those spending cuts will be.”

In 2011, House Republican leaders were so resolute in their demand that President Barack Obama accept deep spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling that they put a clean debt limit increase on the House floor just to unanimously vote it down. Few Republicans now would relish taking that vote.

“Part of the reason they’ve softened some of the edges — is it’s a different time, it’s a different moment,” said Liam Donovan, a veteran Republican strategist. “There was an acknowledgment coming out of 2010 that Obama was going to have to yield, that there was a referendum toward curbing spending. That is not only not present here, but if anything, there is disagreement even within Republican ranks as to whether that’s prudent.”

Republican leaders are hoping their conference will unite around Limit, Save, Grow both to spotlight their opposition to Mr. Biden and his agenda and to try to force him to drop his demand that they lift the debt ceiling without conditions. Several hard-right organizations, including the lobbying arm of the Heritage Foundation and Citizens for Renewing America, an organization run by Russell T. Vought, former President Donald J. Trump’s budget director, endorsed the framework.

“We’re being responsible fiscally and bringing our house back in order,” Mr. McCarthy said. “It doesn’t solve all of our problems, but it gets us on the right path and this gets us to the negotiating table.”

Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.

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