House G.O.P. Prepares to Slash Federal Programs in Coming Budget Showdown

WASHINGTON — Hard-right House Republicans are readying a plan to gut the nation’s foreign aid budget and make deep cuts to health care, food assistance and housing programs for poor Americans in their drive to balance the federal budget, as the party toils to coalesce around a plan that will deliver on their promise to slash spending.

Republicans are ready this week to condemn President Biden’s forthcoming budget as bloated and misguided, and have said they will propose their own next month. But uniting his fractious conference around a list of deep cuts to popular programs will be the biggest test yet for Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who will need to win the support of Republicans in competitive districts and conservative hard-liners to cobble together the 218 votes needed to win the passage of a budget plan.

Privately, even some top party officials have questioned how Republicans will meet their spending objectives while keeping their members in line.

The most conservative lawmakers in his conference — who are emboldened after their four-day standoff with Mr. McCarthy, a California Republican, earlier this year during his election as speaker — are pursuing cuts that they concede could cause political pain and blowback among their colleagues.

“There is going to be a gnashing of teeth,” said Representative Ralph Norman of South Carolina, an arch-conservative member of the House Budget Committee, as the Republican majority works to produce its spending blueprint. “It is not going to be a pretty process. But that’s how it should be.”

The ugliness owes in part to a paradigm shift among G.O.P. lawmakers. After decades of futile efforts to cut the enormous costs of Social Security and Medicare, Republicans have pledged not to touch the biggest entitlement programs, whose spending grows automatically and are on an unsustainable trajectory as more Americans reach retirement age. Coupled with their promise not to raise taxes, that leaves the G.O.P. to consider a slash-and-burn approach to a slew of federal programs and agencies whose budgets are controlled by Congress.

As they meet privately to develop their plan, Republicans say they are relying heavily on a budget outline developed by Russell T. Vought, the former Trump administration budget director who now leads the far-right Center for Renewing America.

Russell Vought, the former Trump budget director, has been advising the House Republican Conference on slashing discretionary spending. “That’s the worst part of the federal spending, because it’s the bureaucracy,” he said.Credit…Alex Brandon/Associated Press

In an interview, Mr. Vought said it made strategic sense to shift away from politically impregnable Social Security and Medicare and instead target an array of programs that conservatives have criticized for years.

“We’re in a total strategic cul-de-sac on the right, and our fiscal warriors and strategists have totally failed in the sense that, point to any cuts we’ve had success-wise since 1997,” Mr. Vought said in an interview. “I actually think that that’s the worst part of the federal spending, because it’s the bureaucracy.

Understand the U.S. Debt Ceiling

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What is the debt ceiling? The debt ceiling, also called the debt limit, is a cap on the total amount of money that the federal government is authorized to borrow via U.S. Treasury securities, such as bills and savings bonds, to fulfill its financial obligations. Because the United States runs budget deficits, it must borrow huge sums of money to pay its bills.

The limit has been hit. What now? America hit its technical debt limit on Jan. 19. The Treasury Department will now begin using “extraordinary measures” to continue paying the government’s obligations. These measures are essentially fiscal accounting tools that curb certain government investments so that the bills continue to be paid. Those options could be exhausted by June.

What is at stake? Once the government exhausts its extraordinary measures and runs out of cash, it would be unable to issue new debt and pay its bills. The government could wind up defaulting on its debt if it is unable to make required payments to its bondholders. Such a scenario would be economically devastating and could plunge the globe into a financial crisis.

Can the government do anything to forestall disaster? There is no official playbook for what Washington can do. But options do exist. The Treasury could try to prioritize payments, such as paying bondholders first. If the United States does default on its debt, which would rattle the markets, the Federal Reserve could theoretically step in to buy some of those Treasury bonds.

Why is there a limit on U.S. borrowing? According to the Constitution, Congress must authorize borrowing. The debt limit was instituted in the early 20th century so that the Treasury would not need to ask for permission each time it had to issue debt to pay bills.

“I’m not saying you can balance on discretionary alone,” he said, referring to the part of the federal budget controlled by Congress. “But a work requirement food stamp program is a lot easier to sell than premium support,” he added, referring to a plan to make Medicare beneficiaries shoulder more of their costs.

The strategy suggested by Mr. Vought, who has become something of an intellectual and tactical guru to many of the hard-liners in the House Republican Conference, would enact deep spending cuts to what he called the “woke and weaponized government.”

The outline includes a 45 percent cut to foreign aid; adding work requirements for food stamp and Medicaid beneficiaries; a 43 percent cut to housing programs, including phasing out the Section 8 program that pays a portion of monthly rent costs for low-income people; cutting the F.B.I.’s counterintelligence budget by nearly half; and eliminating Obamacare expansions to Medicaid to save tens of billions of dollars.

Nearly 40 states have accepted federal funding for expansion under the Affordable Care Act, providing health care coverage for an estimated 12 million individuals living near or below the poverty line.

The proposal would also eliminate the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Pentagon, cut $3.4 billion in State Department migration and refugee assistance, and make Pell grants available only to students whose families cannot contribute any money toward a college education.

Adding work requirements to programs like food stamps is “a given,” according to Mr. Norman.

“We’re $32 trillion in debt,” said Representative Chip Roy, Republican of Texas. “We’ve got to get people back to work, get the economy going.”

A proposal with such cuts will draw attacks that Republicans are targeting the truly needy while avoiding touching the other benefit programs that serve many older Americans with other sources of income. But Republicans say the savings have to be found.

If politicians cannot “change the trajectory on discretionary spending, then we’ll never have the courage to tackle the bigger issues,” said Representative Josh Brecheen of Oklahoma, a first-term conservative Republican on the Budget Committee. “So we’ve got to have the courage to go after the nondefense discretionary areas that everyone may not agree on.”

More on the Debt Limit

  • A Federal Showdown: The United States government is engaged in a high-stakes political battle over paying its debts — again. How did we get here?
  • The G.O.P.’s Role: House Republicans are blaming President Biden’s spending bills for an increase in deficits. Voting records show otherwise.
  • Risks for the Economy: If Congress fails to increase the government’s borrowing limit in time, it could cause a shock to the economy and financial markets. Here are some of the possible ramifications.
  • A Fiscal Blame Game: As the Treasury Department takes “extraordinary measures” to avoid a default, both Republicans and Democrats are intent on painting their opponents as culpable.

Democrats are eager for Republicans to roll out their spending plan, expecting it to provide powerful ammunition to show the G.O.P. intends to slice a range of federal programs relied upon by Americans across all incomes.

“Show Us Your Plan” has become a rallying cry for Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, as he and his fellow Democrats have called on Republicans to make public the budget cuts they want in return for raising the federal debt limit later this year to avoid a federal default.

Mr. Biden has made a point of singling out Mr. Vought and his budget proposal, stressing his ties to Mr. Trump and warning that the plan “could cause nearly 70 million people to lose services,” most of them “seniors, people with disabilities, and children.”

Representative Brendan F. Boyle of Pennsylvania, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, called Mr. Vought’s budget plan “an outright war on middle-class America.”

“If you say that you’re going to eliminate the deficit by the end of the decade, but you say you’re not going to touch Social Security, you’re not going to touch Medicare, you’re not going to touch defense — that means you have to cut 100 percent of everything that’s left,” Mr. Boyle said. “So I welcome this debate. Math is on our side.”

Some Democrats are calling for both parties to find a way to compromise, urging Republicans to drop their threats to use the debt limit to force concessions and Democrats to recognize the need to rein in out-of-control spending.

“We will never solve the problem by having each party running in the opposite direction,” Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, said in an extended Senate floor speech last week as he painted a dire federal fiscal picture. “We will only be able to change course by coming together, embracing common sense, and finding common ground.”

Under the current approach, House Republicans hope to merge the competing budget proposals that have in the past emerged from various conservative factions into one plan that can clear the Budget Committee on its way to the House floor. Members of the panel, who recently gathered for a closed-door conference, credit Representative Jodey Arrington, the Texas Republican and new Budget Committee chairman, for being open to their ideas and sharing many of them.

“It is my strong view that it would be reckless and irresponsible to raise the debt limit without common-sense spending controls on Congress,” Mr. Arrington wrote recently in The Hill.

With the G.O.P. holding such a narrow House majority, Republicans conceded that securing the 218 votes needed to approve a budget replete with politically charged cuts would be extremely difficult.

“It is daunting,” said Mr. Norman, who said committee Republicans nonetheless would make clear what their budget-cutting plans were when the moment came. “We are going to spell it out.”

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