WASHINGTON — In a deepening struggle over spending, Republicans and Democrats swapped charges Thursday over a possible government shutdown when funding expires March 4 for most federal agencies.
"Read my lips: We're going to cut spending," declared House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who pledged that the GOP-controlled House would refuse to approve even a short-term measure at current funding levels to keep the government operating.
He prefaced his remarks by accusing Democrats of risking a shutdown "rather than to cut spending and to follow the will of the American people." But moments later, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., retorted that Boehner was resorting "to threats of a shutdown without any negotiation."
The sparring occurred as the House labored to complete work on veto-threatened legislation to cut more than $61 billion from the budget year that's more than a third over. That bill also would provide funding to keep the government operating until Sept. 30.
With that one bill at the center of a political dispute — the House has repeatedly worked well past midnight on the legislation this week — Boehner chose the moment to open a second front. To underscore the budget-cutting commitment by the 87 conservative new members of his rank and file, he announced that Republicans would move quickly this spring on companion legislation to cut "wasteful mandatory spending" by the federal government.
He provided no details, but party officials said they expected the effort to begin shortly after the House returns from next week's recess.
The current legislation is sweeping in scope, containing cuts to literally hundreds of domestic programs, from education to environmental protection, nutrition and parks.
In addition, it has become a target for first-term conservative Republicans eager to demonstrate their budget-cutting bona fides and for other lawmakers hoping to change the course of government in ways large or small.
In a series of votes on Thursday, for example:
Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., was successful in cutting an additional $20 million from the National Endowment for the Arts, already targeted for a $23 million reduction from current levels. The vote was 217-207.
But by a margin of 322-104, Rep. Charlie Bass, R-N.H., lost his bid to restore $50 million of a proposed cut in funding for low-income heating assistance.
Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., sought to eliminate funding for the National Labor Relations Board, but was rebuffed, 250-176. That left in place a cut of $50 million, or 18 percent, for the agency that referees disputes between workers and employers.