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Republicans back at work cutting spending

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WASHINGTON — Moving quickly, House Republicans are taking another whack at federal spending on the day after a State of the Union address in which President Barack Obama pronounced the country "poised for progress" and beckoned lawmakers of both parties to make job creation their common goal.

"The challenges we face are bigger than party, and bigger than politics," the president said in a nationally televised speech at the dawn of a new era of divided government.

Republicans applauded the president politely and tempered their post-speech criticism on a night where civility reigned, more than two weeks after the shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that killed six, left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., wounded and stunned lawmakers.

"I assure you, we want to work with the president to cut federal spending," Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan said in the official Republican response moments after Obama spoke.

But the chairman of the House Budget Committee pivoted quickly and said that in the past two years Obama had presided over a huge run-up in spending on domestic programs. Democrats then "made matters even worse" with a health care law stuffed with taxes, penalties, mandates and fees that are stifling job creation, he said.

"We hold to a couple of simple convictions: Endless borrowing is not a strategy; spending cuts have to come first," he said, the latest indication that conservatives in Congress intend to seek deeper cuts in spending and more far-reaching changes in benefit programs than Obama or Democrats will accept.

"We face a crushing burden of debt," Ryan said in a speech from the committee room where Republicans will soon begin writing a plan to cut spending and reduce deficits. "The debt will soon eclipse our entire economy and grow to catastrophic levels in the years ahead."

While Republican leaders sought to put Ryan out front, their plan was complicated by the decision of Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, a tea party favorite, to deliver a speech of her own.

Newly in charge of the House, Republicans already have made an early down payment on their commitment to cut costs, voting to pare spending on their own office and committee accounts by 5 percent. On Tuesday, hours before Obama spoke, they went on record in favor of reducing most domestic programs to levels in place when Obama took office, and 17 Democrats joined them.

Even larger cuts are expected as winter turns to spring, but another relatively small change was on the House agenda for the day after Obama's speech.

It would eliminate the program of federal matching funds that helps finance presidential campaigns, and supporters said savings would total $520 million over a decade.

The White House opposes the bill, saying the system should be improved, not eliminated.

For his part, Obama was following up his speech with a trip to Wisconsin to tout the economy's recovery from the recession so far, and, as he turns to his re-election bid, campaign for the steps he outlined in the speech.

Obama walked down the center aisle of a packed House chamber in far stronger political shape than could have been anticipated three months ago.

Joblessness remains at 9.4 percent, but the economy is growing, and polls place his approval rating above 50 percent, higher than it has been in almost a year. One recent survey recorded a double-digit increase in recent months among independent voters, who deserted the Democrats and swung behind Republicans last fall.

In a speech that ran more than an hour, the president coupled his call for a five-year freeze on domestic programs with a request to increase spending on selected areas such as high-speed rail and clean energy.

He said he was open to changing the health care law, but told Republican critics he wouldn't agree to their demands to repeal it.

He drew applause from GOP deficit hawks in his audience when he said he would veto legislation containing pet projects known as earmarks. But then he challenged lawmakers to make public any meetings they have with lobbyists, a step he said the White House has already taken.

He said Social Security's finances must be strengthened "without slashing benefits for future generations, and without subjecting Americans' guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market." That was a message to Ryan and other Republicans who want to let younger workers create private retirement accounts as an alternative to the current system of government benefits.

Republicans were unanimous on one point — that Obama's calls for spending cuts weren't strong enough. The party's leader in the Senate, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said overall the president had "changed the tone and the rhetoric" from his first two years in office. But, he said, "freezing government spending for five years at the increased levels of the last two years is really not enough."

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who backed numerous tea party-backed challengers in last fall's elections, was dismissive. "When the President says 'investment' he means bigger federal government and higher taxes. Americans sent a clear message in the 2010 elections. They no longer wish to 'invest' in President Obama's big-spending plans."

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement: "A partial freeze is inadequate at a time when we're borrowing 41 cents of every dollar we spend, and the administration is begging for another increase in the debt limit. Rather than lock in the job-crushing spending binge of the last two years, we are working to carry out our pledge to cut spending to pre-'stimulus,' pre-bailout levels and impose real spending caps."

And Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who chairs the Republican Study Committee, said Obama's proposed freeze was "nothing less than recklessly driving toward a brick wall at 80 miles per hour, then putting on the cruise control and calling it 'responsibility."'

Bachmann said her speech was not meant to compete with Ryan's remarks, but some Republican officials privately expressed anger at her decision. Originally, her remarks were to go to tea party supporters, but that changed when CNN decided to carry them live.

"Last November you went to the polls and voted out big-spending politicians and you put in their place men and women with a commitment to follow the Constitution and cut the size of government," she said. "I believe that we are in the early days of a history-making turn."

Bachmann narrowly avoided a gaffe of constitutional proportions in her speech.

Excerpts released in advance called on Obama to "commit himself to signing" a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget.

The Constitution gives the president no role in amendments, which go directly to the states for ratification after Congress approves them.

Her full remarks, released a few hours after the excerpts, dropped the reference to a signing and merely urged Obama to support the amendment.