WASHINGTON -- Congressional Republicans are cautiously embracing President Barack Obama's proposal for shrinking the size of the federal government, although many are watching to see if his actions will match up with his words.
Obama announced Friday that he will ask Congress to give him new authority to consolidate government agencies. His first project would involve merging six major trade and business agencies into one and eliminating the Commerce Department. The reorganization would save $3 billion over 10 years and streamline services for businesses.
"Today, I'm calling on Congress to reinstate the authority that past presidents have had to streamline and reform the executive branch," Obama said during remarks at the White House. "This is the same sort of authority that every business owner has to make sure that his or her company keeps pace with the times. And let me be clear: I will only use this authority for reforms that result in more efficiency, better service and a leaner government."
Ronald Reagan was the last president who had such streamlining power. If Congress gives Obama the green light, he would gain fast-track authority -- that is, the ability to bypass a Senate filibuster -- for any number of government consolidation proposals aimed at saving taxpayer dollars and boosting efficiency. The House and Senate would have to hold an up-or-down vote within 90 days of receiving such a proposal.
Key Republicans tentatively lined up to support the president's plan, which isn't surprising given that the GOP is traditionally the party of smaller government. In fact, Obama is effectively forcing House and Senate Republicans to prove their support for paring down the federal workforce.
"I stand ready to work with President Obama on proposals to reorganize federal agencies," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
"While I have been disappointed that the White House has not embraced earlier bipartisan congressional efforts seeking collaborative engagement on proposals to reorganize government, I hope this announcement represents the beginning of a sincere and dedicated effort to enact meaningful reforms," Issa added.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, praised Obama for choosing the Commerce Department as his first target. That agency is "a catch-all department of programs, ranging from weather to the census to trade," she said, and in general, "there is no shortage of agencies and programs ripe for streamlining and eliminating duplication to save money and improve service."
Aides to House and Senate Republican leaders also warmed to Obama's plan, as long as he actually delivers on it.
"While we welcome the president's reported efforts to reduce duplication [and] waste and simplify the federal bureaucracy, we hope that these strong words are followed by stronger action," said Laena Fallon, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
"Given the president's record of growing government, we're interested to learn whether this proposal represents actual relief for American businesses or just the appearance of it," noted Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). "Eliminating duplicative programs and making the federal government more simple, streamlined and business-friendly is always an idea worth exploring."
Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), knocked Obama for "presiding over one of the largest expansions of government in history," but said Senate GOP leaders would take a look at what Obama wants to do. "It's interesting to see the president finally acknowledge that Washington is out of control," said Stewart.
Obama's proposal aligns with the administration's "We Can't Wait" message, which will be invoked through Election Day. The president has been saying for weeks that he plans to use his executive authority to do whatever he can, regardless of partisan logjams in Congress, to boost the economy and bring down spending. Friday's announcement was no different.
"With or without Congress, I'm going to keep at it," Obama said. "But it would be a lot easier if Congress helped."
Lawmakers won't be back in town for another week and a half, so Obama will have to wait to see if Congress will grant this new authority.
The six agencies the president plans to target first are the Small Business Administration, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the Trade and Development Agency, and the trade and business functions at the Commerce Department. Jeffrey Zients, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, told reporters Friday that the plan would result in 1,000 to 2,000 jobs being lost. But those cuts would be made through attrition, not layoffs.
Obama is already meeting some resistance over this first proposal. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, issued a joint statement expressing concern about changes to the U.S. Trade Representative.
"Taking USTR, one of the most efficient agencies that is a model of how government can and should work, and making it just another corner of a new bureaucratic behemoth would hurt American exports and hinder American job creation," said Baucus and Camp. "We certainly need to look for ways to reduce government and cut taxes, but not at the expense of programs that are helping businesses, ranchers and farmers create jobs and expand our economy."
Some environmental groups are also dismayed that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is currently under the Commerce Department, would be transferred to the Interior Department. "This is not merely some technical, bureaucratic shift," Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. "The move could erode the capabilities and mute the voice of the government's primary agency for protecting our oceans and the ecosystems and economies that depend on them."
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) questioned Obama's sincerity in wanting to reform government at all since he didn't consult with Congress before making his big announcement.
"What's disconcerting is that the president has again chosen not to work with Congress -- even after I specifically asked the Obama administration to fully brief Congress if it chose to reorganize our trade agencies," Hatch said. "As the lead Republican on the Finance Committee, I will discuss this matter with my colleagues and will expect a full accounting by the administration in short order."