WASHINGTON - For all the information Democrats and Republicans threw at each other Thursday night about a debt ceiling plan nearing a vote in the House, the highlight for Rep. William L. Owens might have been what he did not know - how some $3 trillion in spending cuts proposed by the Republican leadership would affect Northern New York.
"I have no idea what it cuts," Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said in an interview about an hour before the vote was abruptly delayed - an indication of the trouble Republicans were having gathering votes from their own members. "It almost has the smell of pass it and decide later."
Competing plans to slash government spending in exchange for raising the federal debt limit offered many big numbers for total reductions but few specifics on how those numbers will fall on various federal programs. Neither House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was talking in such detail, focusing instead on big-picture numbers that will meet demands to have cuts match the increase in borrowing authority.
That left advocacy groups to fill in the gaps while Democrats complained about Republicans' singular focus on shrinking federal programs. Mr. Owens said he would have voted against the bill in any event because it seeks a constitutional amendment for a balanced budget - even though he has been supportive of making budget cuts a condition for raising the debt ceiling.
And Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, ranking Democrat on the House Rules Committee, declared on the House floor, "We have no idea what cuts are in this bill."
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning research group, suggested the GOP plan would have to either cut entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security or "eviscerate the safety net for low-income children, parents, senior citizens, and people with disabilities."
"There is no other plausible way to get $1.5 trillion in entitlement cuts in the next ten years," he CBPP's executive director, Robert Greenstein, said in a column on the organization's website.
That figure, he said, reflects documents Mr. Boehner's office gave to GOP lawmakers indicating that "entitlement reforms and savings" will generate the $1.8 trillion in additional savings the bill requires on top of $1.2 trillion in discretionary programs.
By cutting $1.5 trillion from entitlements, Congress can generate $1.8 trillion in savings, including interest, Mr. Greenstein said.
The Republican plan mandates $1.2 trillion in a first round of savings, to come from discretionary programs.
After hitting those programs hard, Mr. Greenstein said, lawmakers will have little choice but to focus the next $1.8 trillion in cuts on entitlement programs.
Mr. Greenstein noted that Social Security or Medicare were targeted for cuts in three proposals floated before lawmakers this year: the "Gang of Six" compromise offered by a bipartisan group of senators, a deal between Mr. Boehner and President Barack Obama that fell apart, and the House GOP budget resolution crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that passed the House.
But one Republican lawmaker, Rep. Christopher P. Gibson of Kinderhook, said the GOP proposal strengthens Social Security and that he does not support cutting Medicare benefits for people currently enrolled.
Mr. Gibson and other New York Republican lawmakers appeared likely to support it. The one lawmaker who most often sides with the right wing, Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-Onondaga Hill, has indicated her support. Should the GOP approach prevail, these lawmakers will be asked to vote again to raise the debt ceiling next year, along with additional spending cuts.
To some extent, Mr. Owens's political sense of smell states the obvious. Both Mr. Boehner's plan and Mr. Reid's rival proposal include a bipartisan committee to identify more savings in the next few months. And cuts are the likely route; the committee appears unlikely to recommend tax increases because of stiff opposition from the conservative House Republican rank and file.
The conservative Heritage Foundation urged against all the plans that have been floated, calling instead for deeper cuts to government programs.
"Forget the McConnell, McConnell-Reid, Coburn, Gang-of-Six, Boehner, and Reid plans. Go with the American plan - cut government spending, deeply and right now, for the good of the country," the organization urged on its website.