When Republicans took control of the House this November—and took back some control over the federal budget—they did so with a promise of widespread cuts to government spending.
But as those conversations have started developing between members on Capitol Hill, a less catchy reality is coming into light: Spending cuts are easier promised than delivered.
Instead of wide agreement on when, where, and how to cut spending, members are still haggling over how to start.
The defense budget is huge, but some Republicans are cautious to be seen cutting money for the military and national security—a line-item Republicans have fought to increase for decades. Social Security and Medicare are allegedly on the table, but it’s a red line for some Republicans that former President Donald Trump—still the most prominent Republican—has insisted they should not touch.
And then there are earmarks. Earmarks—the member-directed spending for special projects in specific congressional districts—is another area of scorn for Republicans that could perhaps garner some support. But it makes up a minute fraction of overall spending, and wouldn’t offset the debts House Republicans have sworn to tackle.
One Republican, Rep. Doug Lamalfa (R-CA), said the question of what areas can be cut can be “a pretty tough one, because it’s such a wide-ranging question there.”
“But I think part of the belt-tightening we need to do is ask better questions about how we’re spending money we already are spending. So, to just say, you know, ‘Cut, cut’ is more about, are we getting bang for the buck in every area of government that so we should?” Lamalfa said.
Other Republicans around the Capitol last week expressed similar sentiments.
Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV) said members at this moment are “seeing what the history is to figure out what we did, where and why. Because some areas may be—not having seen the information yet—may be fair game.”
Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) suggested until there’s further guidance, members are in limbo.
“I just want a plan, right? You can’t balance the budget unless you have a plan,” he said
And Senate Republicans delivered chest-thumping promises at a press conference last week to cut the budget drastically. They made their traditional comparisons of running the government being like running a business, and insisting this is all a matter of fiscal responsibility.
But even they evaded multiple questions about where spending cuts would specifically come from.
“We’re going down this process now, step-by-step. The first one is to pass the budget, which will contemplate those types of cuts… there’s a number of ways of doing it. But we need to first get the structural process in place,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI).
“If we’re going to get ourselves out of this debt hole, we’re going to have to look at everything, every year,” Johnson later added.
Simply figuring out what programs and spending are on the chopping block is just the first step—perhaps the easiest part of what’s bound to be a horrid process for Republicans. There’s no guarantee the House’s ultra-conservative wing and moderate center will be able to agree on anything.
Opinions on spending can be highly polarized and localized issues. A member who had a military base in their district might be more hesitant for defense cuts. A member whose district has a higher rate of Medicare recipients would have a very strong incentive to protect it. And so on.
That’s on top of demands from the ultra-conservative wing of the party, which are sure to emerge. Many are especially emboldened by their success in holding up McCarthy’s speaker bid for a grand total of five days and 15 votes.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), who is conservative but was not part of the group who voted against McCarthy, made no hesitations when asked what spending should be up for cuts, offering a specific first choice.
“We can certainly stop sending money over to Ukraine. I think that’s the perfect place to start,” she said.
McCarthy would need 218 votes to pass any legislation, including bills related to spending cuts. He only has 222 Republicans. And whatever he passes would also need to clear Democrats in the Senate to reach the 60-vote threshold.
On top of those complexities, there’s a ticking time-bomb surrounding Republicans’ ambitions to cut spending. This summer, Congress will need to strike a deal on the debt ceiling or catastrophic defaults would throw the global economy into a tailspin. Many members of the GOP want to leverage their position and demand agreements on spending cuts from the administration and Senate in exchange for cooperating to raise the limit.
The White House itself isn’t against spending cuts, with Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre telling reporters Wednesday that if “folks have ideas on how to deal with the national debt and lower the debt, [Biden’s] happy to hear that.”
But the White House has remained insistent it won’t negotiate on raising the debt ceiling.
Republicans insist they’re going to win concessions anyways, launching an incredibly risky game of chicken between parties.
“I have news for [Biden]. He absolutely will negotiate,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said last week. “Conservatives will not vote to raise the debt ceiling. The majority in the House—the Republican majority in the House—will not vote to raise the debt ceiling without significant budget reform.”
In addition to not knowing exactly what to cut, there’s also one more temporary delay in starting the process. Amodei pointed out committee staff hiring is behind, largely due to McCarthy’s speaker battle, which delayed the usual kick-off procedures for a new Congress, including committee assignments and staffing.
It’s a bumpy start for the majority Republicans fought across four years to win. But still, they say, they’re optimistic something will get done. It’ll just take some time.
In a line that would make a subpar campaign slogan but is probably an accurate assessment of where House Republicans are at, Zinke simply said: “It’s not about cutting, it’s about reviewing.”