WASHINGTON — In power scarcely a day, House Republicans bluntly told the White House on Thursday its request to raise the nation's $14.3 trillion debt limit will require federal spending cuts to win their approval, laying down an early marker in a new era of divided government.
Speaker John Boehner made the challenge as the new GOP majority voted to cut funding for House members' own offices and committee operations by $35 million. Rank and file Republicans described that vote as a mere down payment on a much more ambitious assault on record federal deficits.
"It's not massive," first-term Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said of Thursday's cut. "But it is monumental."
At a news conference, Boehner, R-Ohio, also said emphatically he was standing by a pre-election pledge to cut government spending by at least $100 billion this year. "No ifs, ands or buts about it," he said, despite recent comments from other Republicans the total might be overly ambitious.
The Republicans who took control of the House on Wednesday include dozens of newcomers elected last fall with the support of tea party activists eager for a smaller, less intrusive government. And Thursday's events suggested a bone-jarring struggle could be mere weeks away as conservative lawmakers use the Treasury's need for more borrowing authority to try and extract concessions from President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats.
Obama has spoken favorably but in general terms about a need to reduce federal deficits. An administration official said the White House wants that issue to proceed independently of the debt limit increase.
"The American people will not stand for such an increase unless it is accompanied by meaningful action by the president and Congress to cut spending and end the job-killing spending binge in Washington," Boehner said.
"While America cannot default on its debt, we also cannot continue to borrow recklessly, dig ourselves deeper into this hole, and mortgage the future of our children and grandchildren."
Boehner's statement was triggered by a letter from Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who wrote congressional leaders the government could exhaust its borrowing authority of $14.29 trillion between March 31 and May 16.
He said the precise date depends on the economy, tax receipts and other matters, but added, "It will be necessary for Congress to act by the end of the first quarter of 2011." Without an increase, he said the government would eventually default on its obligations and "catastrophic damage to the economy" could result.
Congressional legislation is required to increase the government's borrowing ability. Such bills periodically prompt showdowns in Congress, where many lawmakers in both parties cringe at having to cast votes that acknowledge the government is living beyond its means.
By contrast, the House has unilateral authority to cut its own spending, and GOP leaders chose a 5 percent reduction as a symbolic initial action by lawmakers on their first full day on the job.
The $35 million would be enough to keep the government running for about five minutes.
Republicans said there would be more to come - much more.
"We will carry out the most expansive reduction of discretionary spending in the history of our nation, said Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, newly installed as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
The vote Thursday was a bipartisan 410-13.
More broadly, Congress must act by early March to replenish spending authority for government activities ranging from the Pentagon to the National Park Service and the courts. In their campaign manifesto, a Pledge to America, House Republican candidates promised to pare most non-defense programs by $100 billion, the amount they said had been added since Obama took office.
In recent days, though, numerous Republicans have said that figure was calculated based on an assumption that the cuts would take effect at the beginning of the fiscal year. By March, five months will have elapsed, and they said that meant the $100 billion figure was too high.
In his letter to legislative leaders, Geithner said an increase in the debt limit "simply permits the Treasury to fund those obligations Congress has already established."
Without an increase, he said the government would be forced to default, "causing catastrophic damage to the economy" that could rival the effects of the near collapse of the banking system in 2008 and 2009.
In his statement, Boehner did not question the need for an increase, but said it must be accompanied by other measures.
"Spending cuts - and reforming a broken budget process - are top priorities for the American people and for the new majority in the House this year, and it is essential that the president and Democrats in Congress work with us in that effort."
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has said previously any debt limit increase "will not be without some strings attached if it happens, because they're going to have to seriously address spending and debt. The American people want it. They expect it."
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada approvingly cited Boehner's statement that "we're going to have to deal with it as adults" — talking about the debt limit. "Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations and we have obligations on our part."
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, was less forgiving. "Using this doomsday scenario and putting the American economy at risk I don't think is a responsible way to govern," he said of the Republicans.