WASHINGTON – House Republicans want lower federal spending than President Bush has proposed and will consider chopping his plans for big defense and domestic security increases, the chamber's GOP leaders said Wednesday.
After a closed two-and-a-half hour meeting, top House Republicans and rank-and-file lawmakers said there was a consensus to hold spending at -- or probably below -- the 0.5 percent increase for most domestic programs that Bush proposed in his budget last week.
They said a freeze at this year's levels -- saving about $2 billion more than Bush sought -- would be a likely outcome when they write their own election-year budget, probably next month.
"That's the most passion about cutting the budget there's been in that room since 1995," said Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., after the meeting, referring to the year Republicans took control of Congress and launched a drive to pare spending.
Republicans said almost everything but Social Security (search) and Medicare (search) were potential savings targets. That includes other benefit programs like Medicaid (search), and Bush's proposals to boost defense by 7 percent and domestic security by 10 percent.
"We're going to look at all spending that's out there," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. "Nothing is sacred."
Republicans said they also expected their budget to have more deficit reduction than Bush's proposal to cut record red ink in half by 2009.
The White House projects the deficit will hit an unprecedented $521 billion this year.
A week after Bush sent his proposed $2.4 trillion budget for 2005 to Congress, Republicans conceded it would be tough to hold spending to the levels he proposed -- or lower -- amid re-election campaigns. Reflecting that, their meeting Wednesday produced no final decisions.
Even so, their tough talk about spending underlined the budget pressures Republicans face.
Surging spending under Bush and the projected deficits have angered conservatives. Polls show the burgeoning red ink also is eroding the public's trust in Republicans as effective budget managers.
"We have to look at who we are and what we're all about," said Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a leader of the conservatives. "I think politically, it's a good thing to be frugal and focus on the deficit as well."
Ryan and other conservatives proposed cutting most domestic programs by 1 percent and a 1 percent reduction in the annual growth of benefit programs. Social Security and Medicare would be exempted, he said.
Whatever the House passes, it is likely to be toned down by the GOP-run but more moderate Senate.
Also waiting in the wings are Democrats who say Bush's budget cut too deeply into education, veterans, aid to state and local emergency agencies and other programs.
"It doesn't work. And three hours is not going to make it work," No. 2 House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland told reporters about the GOP plan as he walked past the room where Republicans were meeting.
Republicans said the key to staying united would be culling savings from a wide swath of programs.
"The consensus would break down if somebody got special treatment," said moderate Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.
Underscoring that, participants said loud objections were voiced after Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, suggested careful treatment of programs for veterans.
GOP lawmakers expressed few qualms about slowing the increases Bush wants for the Pentagon and domestic security, despite U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and terrorist threats at home.
"We're not saying we're not going to give the troops what they need," said conservative Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C. "There are no agencies, I don't care what they are, that doesn't have waste, fraud and abuse in them."
Republicans said they were likely to claim billions of dollars in savings by proposing to root out waste, fraud and abuse from the federal bureaucracy. House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, proposed a similar campaign last year, but it -- as with many similar efforts in past years -- produced little, a victim of lawmakers eager to protect favored programs.
Moderates and conservatives banded together to propose 12 procedural changes for controlling expenditures, such as automatic cuts if spending exceeds levels set in Congress' budget.