WASHINGTON -- A group of Republican senators led by David Vitter of Louisiana sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) Thursday that they will block any legislation that does not make cuts to government to reduce the national debt.
If they follow through on a pledge to filibuster, the GOP group could effectively derail Senate action until the chamber reaches a compromise with the House over budget cuts, which could take weeks or longer.
"We're telling Sen. Reid that we'll object to any legislation that fails to directly address meaningful spending cuts," Vitter said in a statement accompanying the letter on his website. "If Reid agrees to dedicate significant floor time to debate spending and debt well in advance of the federal government reaching our statutorily-mandated debt limit, then we'll withhold our objection."
Ten Republicans signed the pledge, including Rand Paul of Kentucky, Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Mike Lee of Utah -- the three GOP senators who opposed the House's bill to cut nearly $60 billion from the budget, on the grounds that the cuts didn't lower the deficit enough.
Vitter criticized the way Reid handled the debate over that bill, as well as a Democrat-proposed alternative that would have trimmed $6 billion from current spending levels, in his letter to the majority leader.
"This debate gave only a limited (three hours) opportunity to debate what many Americans believe is the issue of our time - cutting government spending and dramatically reducing our national debt," Vitter wrote. "Additionally, no member of the Senate was permitted to offer amendments under the structured process, which in our opinion prevents a full, open, and robust debate."
Negotiations on the budget, which would fund the federal government through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, are still far from over. In the wake of the Senate's rejection of both bills, Reid and other Democratic leaders are aiming for cuts, but smaller cuts than Republicans have proposed.
The House GOP, meanwhile, could face opposition from within if it tries to settle for a lower number, because many conservative members have said they will vote against a final bill if it does not include large cuts or riders that would defund some of the right's betes noires, such as Planned Parenthood and President Barack Obama's 2010 health care law.
Congress must pass a budget bill by March 18 to avoid a government shutdown, but could pass another short-term stopgap funding bill as the two chambers work on a longer-term compromise. House Republicans have said they will only pass short-term funding extensions if they include $2 billion in cuts per week.
Even if Congress resolves government funding for the remainder of the year, there will be more budget talks down the line, particularly as the United States approaches its debt limit -- an arbitrarily-defined figure that the legislature raises periodically, and which it is expected to reach by summer -- or the government will default on its loans.
Vitter, along with fellow signatory Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, has pushed for radical plans to deal with the deficit and debt ceiling. The two senators introduced a bill in January that would have prioritized paying back debts over funding federal agencies and programs. Dubbed the "Pay China First" plan by Democrats, the bill failed, 52-47, on Tuesday when it was offered as an amendment to an unrelated patent bill.
The House Budget Committee, chaired by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), will introduce a budget for the 2012 fiscal year next month, promising another fight over Social Security and shrinking the government -- which could spell more trouble in the Senate if Republicans continue to block non-spending bills.
UPDATE, 6 p.m.: Reid responded to the letter on Thursday through a statement from his spokesman, Jon Summers.
"After ignoring jobs for months, Republicans are making it official by vowing to block every bill that creates American jobs," he said.