WASHINGTON — Asked how long the House would need to finish legislation cutting $61 billion in government spending, the most powerful Republican in the land responded wryly. "I don't know, I'm only the speaker."
It was a candid acknowledgement from Ohio Rep. John Boehner that the 87 Republican first-term lawmakers who swept the party into power in the House are moving on a path – and at a pace – of their own choosing.
When the leadership brought a bill to the floor to renew parts of the anti-terrorist Patriot Act, it fell short. The leadership regrouped, and the rebels, their questions answered, helped pass the measure on a second try.
When party elders initially drafted a bill to cut spending by $35 billion two weeks ago, the newcomers deemed it too timid.
In office less than two months, the same group of tea party-backed newcomers to Congress provided the muscle for passing the bill early Saturday by a 235-189 vote. The legislation cuts spending across hundreds of programs and eliminates others, kills a costly defense project and aims to block implementation of the year-old health care law, as well as regulations on several industries.
President Barack Obama has pledged to veto it in the unlikely event it passes pass the Democratic-controlled Senate.
It is an article of faith among Democrats that the impatient newcomers will overreach politically and suffer the consequences in the 2012 elections.
"The Republican plan will cost jobs, undercut American innovation and clean energy, jeopardize our safety by taking cops off the street and threaten investments in rebuilding America – at a time when our economy can least afford it," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said.
But less than two months after taking office, Republicans say they have a mandate and sound unflinching as they pledge to carry it out.
"This is about listening to our country, listening to the people who just elected this Congress to restore discipline with respect to our spending," Rep. Frank Guinta of New Hampshire said Friday as the House debated the spending legislation.
He made the remark shortly before he and like-minded newcomers suffered their sharpest setback, rejection of a proposal to add $22 billion in cuts. It was one of their few losses on the sprawling spending bill that was the focus of debate for nearly a week under rules that allowed the type of free-wheeling debate that had all but vanished in recent years.
Under Boehner's direction, Republicans opened the floor to hundreds of amendments. More than 100 were debated and voted on, a striking departure from recent years, including when Pelosi and the Democrats held power and tightly controlled floor proceedings.
On the short end of most of the votes, Democrats were privately complimentary, publicly grudging in their acknowledgement. "It's open, but whether it's focused ... I don't know whether it's been productive," said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking Democratic leader.
At $1.2 trillion, the bill was better known for the cuts that it makes than the money it spends, and for the limitations it places on the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Communications Commission and other regulators.
It calls for eliminating a high-speed rail program that Obama has ticketed for a multibillion-dollar expansion. It recommends ending federal support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, low-income family planning services and the National Service Corp., which oversees AmeriCorps and Senior Corps.
WIC, which provides nutritional support for women and infants, would be cut by $747 million. Training and employment grants to the states are ticketed for a $1.4 billion reduction. Pell Grants for lower-income college students would drop by $5.6 billion, which the White House says would reduce the maximum $5,550 grant by $845.
The Food and Drug Administration would be cut by $241 million, Community Health Centers by $1 billion, and education aid for disadvantaged students by $700 million. Cleanup efforts in the Great Lakes would take a 53 percent cut.
Defense spending would rise by less than 2 percent, to $674 billion, an amount that includes $158 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But in one striking example of the difference made by the Republican newcomers, the House voted to strip out $450 million to continue work on an alternative engine for the F-35, the Pentagon's next generation warplane.
Two successive presidents have tried to kill the program, the Pentagon opposes it and a letter from Defense Secretary Robert Gates was used by opponents to swell their ranks in the days before the vote. The last time the House voted, last spring, the money was approved.
The House agreed to block the FCC from enforcing regulations that were opposed by large Internet service providers and to stop the Department of Education from imposing restrictions that privately owned colleges opposed.
The EPA, targeted for a cut of $3 billion, or 29 percent of its current budget, was blocked from regulating greenhouse gases, which are blamed for global warming.
Critics said Republicans were catering to industry at the expense of public health and safety. But in each case, advocates of the prohibitions argued that the regulations would kill jobs.
The debate over jobs, the overriding issue in last fall's elections, was central to the entire bill.
Republicans said their overriding objective was to cut government spending and block federal regulations so private employers would create jobs and bring down the national 9 percent unemployment rate.
But administration estimates circulated in Congress said the bill's cut to Head Start would lead to about 55,000 layoffs among teachers and support staff. A reduction in Title I money to schools with disadvantaged students would mean "10,000 teachers and aides could lose their jobs," the administration said.
Republicans struggled to defend elements of their bill in light of such estimates. GOP lawmakers suggested at one point that spending on those programs had jumped dramatically, then they attacked other Democratic predictions of job losses as unreliable.
Democrats swiftly criticized Boehner when he said at one point that if federal employees lose their jobs as a result of the bill, "so be it."
He later recast his comment without apologizing or yielding on the spending cuts.
"I don't want anyone to lose their job, whether they're a federal employee or not," Boehner said. "But come on, we're broke. We've got to make the tough decisions, and the American people sent their representatives here to Washington to make tough decisions on their behalf."