WASHINGTON - House Republican leaders sought Wednesday to contain growing conservative opposition to the new 2011 spending deal as the House prepared for contentious back-to-back votes on budget measures.
With the compromise struck last week coming under greater scrutiny, several Republicans in and out of Congress rejected the agreement as insufficient, given the modest immediate impact of its $38 billion in cuts. That amount, achieved in part with budgetary maneuvers, is well below initial Republican aspirations for $61 billion.
"We have to make a bigger dent faster," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who predicted that dozens of House Republicans would oppose the spending bill.
Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who is a likely Republican presidential candidate, added fuel to the discord. "The more we learn about the budget deal," he said, "the worse it looks."
Republican leaders fought back against the characterization, saying the cuts were genuine and extensive. They said they fully expected the measure to win House approval Thursday, though it seemed increasingly likely that Democratic votes would be required to put it over the top.
CBO sees little savings now
The resistance to the spending measure came after reviews of the proposal found that some significant cuts, including some involving health care, are not expected to produce real savings. This is because the money was not likely to be spent for years though it can be counted as a current reduction under budget rules.
According to a Congressional Budget Office comparison, the bill would produce only $350 million in tangible savings this year, partially because cuts in domestic programs were offset by an increase of about $5 billion for Pentagon programs.
When projected emergency contingency spending overseas is figured in by the budget office, estimated outlays for this year actually increase by more than $3 billion.
The agreement does put the brakes on what had been a steady growth in spending by federal agencies. Future savings would be greater as the cuts take hold -- a point Republican aides emphasized by noting that the plan is estimated to cut spending by $312 billion over the next decade.
'We can do better'
At a closed-door party meeting Wednesday, lawmakers warned their leaders that they needed to defend the deal from attacks from the right if they hoped to hold most of their members together.
Congressional officials were a bit rueful that a delay in getting the measure completed until early Tuesday meant they had to postpone the vote until Thursday, giving opposition an extra day to build. A test vote clearing the way for debate on the spending bill easily cleared the House on Wednesday.
After the House acts, the Senate is expected to consider the plan. Republican opposition was emerging there as well, although approval seemed likely.
Sen. Ron Johnson, a freshman Republican from Wisconsin, said that he would join other conservatives expected to reject the plan. "We can do better; we must do better," he said in a statement.
After the spending vote Thursday, the House leadership must turn around Friday and sell a long-term budget plan that some Republicans worry goes too far.
The spending blueprint written by Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who leads the Budget Committee, includes a politically charged proposal to fundamentally reconfigure Medicare.
While the budget has strong conservative support, some House Republicans in Democratic-leaning districts have said they remain undecided about how they will vote.
Even Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader, acknowledged Wednesday that the Republican budget "defied all political convention" by focusing on such a popular program.