Asked how long the House would need to finish legislation cutting $61 billion in government spending, the most powerful Republican in the land responded wryly. “I don’t know, I’m only the speaker.”
It was a candid acknowledgement from Ohio Rep. John Boehner that the 87 Republican first-term lawmakers who swept the party into power in the House are moving on a path — and at a pace — of their own choosing.
When the leadership brought a bill to the floor to renew parts of the anti- terrorist Patriot Act, it fell short. The leadership regrouped, and the rebels, their questions answered, helped pass the measure on a second try.
When party elders initially drafted a bill to cut spending by $35 billion two weeks ago, the newcomers deemed it too timid.
In office less than two months, the same group of tea party-backed newcomers to Congress provided the muscle for passing the bill early Saturday by a 235-189 vote. The legislation cuts spending across hundreds of programs and eliminates others, kills a costly defense project and aims to block implementation of the year-old health-care law, as well as regulations on several industries.
President Barack Obama has pledged to veto it in the unlikely event it clears the Democratic-controlled Senate.
It is an article of faith among Democrats that the impatient newcomers will overreach politically and suffer the consequences in the 2012 elections.
“The Republican plan will cost jobs, undercut American innovation and clean energy, jeopardize our safety by taking cops off the street and threaten investments in rebuilding America — at a time when our economy can least afford it,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said.
But less than two months after taking office, Republicans say they have a mandate and sound unflinching as they pledge to carry it out.
“This is about listening to our country, listening to the people who just elected this Congress to restore discipline with respect to our spending,” Rep. Frank Guinta of New Hampshire said Friday as the House debated the spending legislation.
He made the remark shortly before he and like-minded newcomers suffered their sharpest setback, rejection of a proposal to add $22 billion in cuts. It was one of their few losses on the sprawling spending bill that was the focus of debate for nearly a week under rules that allowed the type of free-wheeling debate that had all but vanished in recent years.
Under Boehner’s direction, Republicans opened the floor to hundreds of amendments. More than 100 were debated and voted on, a striking departure from recent years, including when Pelosi and the Democrats tightly controlled floor proceedings.
On the short end of most of the votes, Democrats were privately complimentary, publicly grudging in their acknowledgement. “It’s open, but whether it’s focused ... I don’t know whether it’s been productive,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking Democratic leader.
At $1.2 trillion, the bill was better known for the cuts that it makes than the money it spends, and for the limitations it places on the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Communications Commission and other regulators.
It calls for eliminating a high-speed rail program that Obama has ticketed for a multibillion-dollar expansion. It recommends ending federal support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, low-income family planning services and the National Service Corp., which oversees AmeriCorps and Senior Corps.
WIC, which provides nutritional support for women and infants, would be cut by $747 million. Training and employment grants to the states are ticketed for a $1.4 billion reduction. Pell Grants for lower-income college students would drop by $5.6 billion, which the White House says would reduce the maximum $5,550 grant by $845.
The Food and Drug Administration would be cut by $241 million, Community Health Centers by $1 billion, and education aid for disadvantaged students by $700 million. Cleanup efforts in the Great Lakes would take a 53 percent cut.
Defense spending would rise by less than 2 percent, to $674 billion, an amount that includes $158 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.