165 House Republicans endorse defunding USAID

165 House Republicans endorse defunding USAID

As the budget battle inside the Republican Party heats up, a large group of conservative House Republicans called Thursday for a drastic defunding of the U.S. Agency for International Development and a host of other programs.

The Republican Study Committee (RSC), a loose conglomeration of 165 self-identified conservative GOP House members, unveiled their plan Thursday that they argue could save $2.5 trillion in federal spending over ten years. The proposal is centered around legislation that would slash or eliminate federal funding for USAID, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the U.S. Trade Development Agency, the Woodrow Wilson Center, the USDA Sugar Program, economic assistance to Egypt, and many other programs.

The RSC plan calls for $1.39 billion in annual savings from USAID. The USAID operating budget for fiscal 2010 was approximately $1.65 billion. The RSC spending plan summary was not clear if all the cuts would come from operations or from USAID administered programs.

The bill is being led by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the RSC chairman, Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ), chairman of the RSC Budget and Spending Task Force. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) is expected to offer a Senate version of the legislation.

The RSC plan also calls for Republicans to fulfill their campaign promise to trim $100 billion from the budget this year by returning "non-security" discretionary spending to 2008 levels in the next funding bill for fiscal 2011, which is needed to keep the government running when the temporary funding bill expires March 4. It would also call for spending to be cut to 2006 levels and then remain flat for the next ten years.

"The current continuing resolution (CR) will expire on March 4th. Under your leadership during the campaign, House Republicans boldly pledged to cut federal spending by $100 billion by returning current spending back to FY2008 levels," read a letter circulated Jan 20 and addressed to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). "Despite the added challenge of being four months into the current fiscal year, we still must keep our $100 billion pledge to the American people."

The GOP plan to defund USAID goes even further than Majority Whip Eric Cantor‘s  suggestion last October to halt foreign aid to countries that don’t share U.S. interests, but Cantor gave a lukewarm endorsement to the RSC plan Thursday.

"I applaud the Republican Study Committee for proposing cuts in federal spending, and I look forward to the discussion on reducing spending that our country so desperately needs to have," Cantor said in a statement. "I look forward to these cuts and others being brought to the floor for an up-or-down vote during consideration of the CR, and I support that effort."

If the RSC plan was ever implemented, which is doubtful, the State Department would be in the firing line for huge cuts. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) announced, on her first day as chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that she wanted to take an axe to the State Department and foreign aid budgets. Her appropriations counterpart, House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX) has made similar statements in the past.

Reached by The Cable Thursday, an aide to Granger said, "Everything is on the table for potential cuts. We appreciate the RSC’s suggestions as a starting point and will consider their ideas going forward."

Of course, "everything" suggests that the defense budget, previously sacrosanct in the GOP, is now part of the debate over cuts. That’s one key area where the divisions inside the GOP caucus will come to light, said Tom Donnelly, director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Center for Defense Studies.

The House GOP leadership is caught between those in their caucus who want to slash and burn federal spending right now and those who want to have a more protracted debate over spending priorities to make sure key items like defense are protected, he said.

"The GOP House leaders have to take account of their new members. They also understand that the Tea Party impulse is not something they can manage, so they have to respond as well as lead and they can’t dictate. It’s not like 1994, where Newt Gingrich was a colossus who could dictate the landscape. This is a bottom up shift not a top down," Donnelly said.

The tensions inside the GOP caucus were on full display Wednesday evening, when freshman South Carolina Tea Party Rep. Tim Scott successfully added an amendment to the Republican’s budget rule that removed flexibility in timing for the budget cuts. Scott was able to change the language from demanding a "transition" to 2008 levels to insisting that change be enacted right away, as was advocated by GOP Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI).

The RSC plan is so drastic and extends its projected cuts so far out into the future that its chances for implementation are slim to none, Donnelly said. But the struggle inside the GOP on the issue is real.

"This debate will do a lot to define the nature of what conservatism is, going forward — whether it’s a more libertarian or Reaganite movement," he said. "The House Democrats are largely spectators at this point."