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Conservatives Claim to Be Prepared for Cuts and for Life Under the Sequester

Members anticipated steep budget cuts for their offices, on the Hill and in their districts

Conservative lawmakers elected to Congress in the Republican wave of 2010 came to Capitol Hill pledging that they would lead by example in cutting spending.

In the 112th Congress, even before House GOP leadership mandated that members’ office budgets and committee coffers would be slashed first by 5 percent and then by 6.4 percent, many Republican members said they were already envisioning running operations slim on staff, franked mail and interstate travel.

It’s making the task of adjusting to life under the sequester a bit less of a challenge, they say.

“We came in at a 20 percent reduction the first two years,” boasted Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., who said his office won’t see any changes under the sequester. “Name another class in Congress that cut their budget 20 percent.”

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., who also entered office in 2010, said his office, too, has always come in under budget. Perhaps the only difference under the sequester, he said, will be that he cannot return as much money to the Treasury Department to go toward deficit reduction as he would like.

In both chambers, lawmakers are anticipating steep cuts to the allowances they receive to run their offices on Capitol Hill and back in their districts. Chairmen and ranking members for House and Senate committees get money to hire staff and support their panels’ work, and those budgets also will fall under the sequester’s knife.

The percentage by which these budgets will get reduced could range from 5.3 percent to nearly 10 percent, but while the House Administration Committee and the Senate Rules and Administration Committee have urged members to prepare, no one can say for sure what the final numbers will look like.

“[The Office of Management and Budget] has not given the percentage yet for the sequester, so it’s premature for me to speculate,” said Jean Bordewich, the staff director for the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which oversees committee budgets.

“Members have been coming up to me every day and asking, ‘What’s the number gonna be?’” said House Administration Chairwoman Candice S. Miller, R-Mich., whose panel sets both members’ office budgets and committee allocations. “Everybody wants to know. They say, ‘Just whisper it to me!’”

She laughed. “I say, ‘I don’t know, but hopefully you’ve been budgeting accordingly.’”

Many members say they have been preparing for the sequester, especially House members who in the previous Congress absorbed an 11.4 percent reduction to their office budgets that in some cases has already resulted in salary and hiring freezes.

“We’ve been making preparations [since] about six months ago,” said third-term Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., who said a legislative assistant who left the staff has not been replaced. “I would love to have the position filled. We need it. I’ve asked a lot of my staff.”

For her part, Miller has told her district office staff that they could either choose to be furloughed or clean their offices themselves, citing the high costs of the regular maintenance service that she can no longer afford.

Fiscal conservatives in the Senate are also having to make do.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also elected in 2010, said his staff was going to have to cut back on travel expenses.

And Senate Finance ranking member Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, who in 2012 was elected to a seventh term, said he had to lay off some of his staff in the past month.

“But I don’t want to dwell on that,” Hatch said on Feb. 28, shortly after competing sequester alternatives were defeated on the Senate floor. “It’s frustrating that you can’t work with Democrats to get things done.”

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