In power scarcely a day, House Republicans told the White House on Thursday that its request to raise the nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling will require federal spending cuts to win their approval, laying down an early marker in a new era of divided government.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, delivered the challenge as the new GOP majority voted, 410-13, to cut funding for House members' offices and committee operations by $35 million. Rank-and-file Republicans described that vote as a down payment on a much more ambitious assault on record federal deficits.
"It's not massive," first-term Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said of Thursday's cut. "But it is monumental."
At a news conference, Boehner said he was standing by a pre-election pledge to cut government spending by at least $100 billion this year. "No ifs, ands or buts about it," he said, despite recent comments from other Republicans that the total might be overly ambitious.
The Republicans who took control of the House on Wednesday include dozens of newcomers elected last fall with the support of "tea party" activists eager for a smaller, less intrusive government.
Thursday's events suggested a bone-jarring struggle could be mere weeks away as conservative lawmakers use the Treasury's need for more borrowing authority to seek concessions from President Obama and congressional Democrats.
Obama has spoken favorably but in general terms about a need to reduce federal deficits. An administration official said the White House wants that issue to proceed independently of the debt limit increase.
"The American people will not stand for such an increase [in the debt limit] unless it is accompanied by meaningful action by the president and Congress to cut spending and end the job-killing spending binge in Washington," Boehner said.
"While America cannot default on its debt, we also cannot continue to borrow recklessly, dig ourselves deeper into this hole, and mortgage the future of our children and grandchildren."
Boehner's statement was triggered by a letter from Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner who told congressional leaders that the government could exhaust its borrowing authority of $14.29 trillion between March 31 and May 16.
He said the precise date depends on the economy, tax receipts and other matters, but added, "It will be necessary for Congress to act by the end of the first quarter of 2011." Without an increase, he said that the government would eventually default on its obligations and that "catastrophic damage to the economy" could result.
Congressional action is required to increase the government's borrowing ability.
In another development Thursday, the Congressional Budget Office said repealing Obama's landmark health care overhaul would add billions to government red ink and leave millions without coverage. The House is expected to vote next week on a GOP repeal proposal.
In a letter to Boehner, CBO Director Douglas W. Elmendorf estimated that repeal would increase the deficit by $230 billion from 2012 to 2021, the 10-year estimating period for budget projections. He said that about 32 million more people would be uninsured in 2019 as a consequence.
Boehner brushed off the CBO analysis while emboldened Republicans issued their own report arguing that Obama's expansion of health care would cost jobs and increase budget deficits.
The House speaker told reporters: "I do not believe that repealing the job-killing health care law will increase the deficit."