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John Boehner, Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, pushed through a massive package of cuts by 235 votes to 192, declaring: 'We will not stop here.'
House of Representatives provokes threat of veto from Barack Obama - and raises prospect of a government shutdown

Republicans pushed through a draconian series of budget cuts worth tens of billions of dollars on Saturday, raising the prospect of a showdown with President Barack Obama.

Emboldened by their 2010 midterm election victory and swelled by Tea Party-backed newcomers, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives signed off on federal spending cuts worth $61bn. The axe will fall on federal money for public broadcasting, environmental programmes, Obama's healthcare reforms and the family planning organisation Planned Parenthood.

Even Obama's own staff face $120m of cuts. Personnel would be withdrawn from key areas including the reform of Wall Street. Some government agencies face budget cuts as high as 40%; the largest reduction in federal government spending since the second world war.

"For the first time in many years, the people's house was allowed to work its will - and the result was one of the largest spending cuts in American history," said the Republican house speaker, John Boehner. "We will not stop here in our efforts to cut spending, not when we're broke and Washington's spending binge is making it harder to create jobs."

The measures were staunchly opposed by Democrats in Congress, but the Republican party showed its new-found strength by forcing the issue to a vote in the early hours of Saturday morning. At 4.35am, the roll call was finally called and the Republicans won by 235 votes to 192. All Democrats had opposed the cuts, but they persuaded only three Republicans to join them.

The move sets up a showdown with the White House and the Democrat-controlled Senate. Obama has said that he will use his presidential veto unless some of the cuts are tempered.

The debate is part of a wider argument about the role of government in America and the scope of federal spending in the face of the recession and spiralling US deficits. Republicans and Democrats now look likely to go head-to-head in the coming months in a fight that could even shut down the government. A federal budget needs to be passed by 4 March, but if the current cuts cannot be agreed, the government may be forced to temporarily close, as happened in 1995 during the first Clinton administration.

So far Republicans have shown little sign of backing off, especially as they now have a need to satisfy the demands of the anti-government Tea Party movement. "These are going to be the most important two, three, four months that we have seen in this town in decades. It's all one fight," said Boehner.

He and the Republicans have argued that government spending has become unsustainable even as they have pushed through a series of massive tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Democrats, meanwhile, say that government spending is vital while unemployment remains high and that severe cuts will only add sacked federal workers to the long lines of the jobless.

"A lot of them [Republicans] don't know the ramifications in their own communities of what they're doing," csaid Steny Hoyer, a senior Democratic congressman from Maryland.

The debate is being played out in even more dramatic terms at a local level, as state and city governments try to impose massive spending cuts in the face of huge gaps in their budgets.

America was captivated last week by scenes in Wisconsin where tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets over measures pushed through by the state's new Tea Party-backed Republican governor, Scott Walker. The liberal-leaning cable news channel MSNBC broadcast some shows live from Wisconsin, while pictures of a reporter from the conservative Fox network being berated by outraged demonstrators went viral on the internet.

Walker's proposals to slash Wisconsin's spending hit state workers hard, and would effectively take away many of their union rights. Democratic lawmakers in Wisconsin have fled the state in order to delay a vote on the issue. In turn, Walker has threatened to call out the National Guard to maintain public order in the face of protests and also to use the police to force Democratic politicians back to the state.

Huge union protests were planned for Saturday in Wisconsin as well as counter-protests by Tea Party supporters. Proposals similar to the Wisconsin legislation have also been put forward in Ohio and several other states.