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Posted at 03:36 PM ET, 05/07/2012

House opens debate on how to replace Pentagon cuts


House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) speaks during a news conference on April 5. (Joshua Roberts - Bloomberg)

The House Budget Committee has approved consideration of a Republican proposal to replace deep automatic cuts set to hit the Pentagon on Jan. 1 with a series of more targeted budget cuts to food stamps, health programs, consumer protection and other social services — a party-line vote that opens a week of House debate over the package.

The House Budget Committee began a review of the $261 billion package of spending reductions Monday afternoon. Debate will continue into the evening, as Democrats unsuccessfully propose changes they would like to instruct be made to the package as it progresses through the legislative process. The full House will vote on Thursday.

The automatic cuts, known as the sequester, were outlined in the August deal that raised the debt ceiling. In that deal, Congress agreed to set up the bipartisan supercommittee. If the bipartisan panel, known as the supercommittee, failed to reach a deal, Congress agreed the budget would be automatically slashed by $1.2 trillion over the next decade, with reductions split between defense and domestic programs.

With the failure of the supercommittee last fall, the specter of the sequester looms on Jan. 1 unless Congress can agree to an alternative.

The sequester was designed to be painful to compel agreement — the Pentagon has warned its cuts could devastate national defense and members of Congress in both parties have generally agreed they should come up with an alternative deficit reduction deal.

House Republicans presented this week’s proposal as a way to start the conversation. Six House committees each worked to propose cuts, amounting to $18.35 billion in savings for the next fiscal year and $261 billion over the next decade.

“Unless we act, the sequester will take effect. I don’t believe this is in the national interest,” said House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), opening Monday’s hearing. “House Republicans are bringing specific proposals to the table. We invite the president to do the same, which he has so far not.”

In his budget, President Obama proposed turning off the sequester and replacing it with a series of spending cuts but also closing tax loopholes and increasing taxes on the wealthy.

With Democrats in the Senate opposed, the House GOP proposal will not be used to turn off the sequester. Instead, many members of Congress hope to reach a bipartisan deal after the election, when the Jan. 1 expiration of the Bush tax cuts will also be looming, raising the possibility of a grand bargain on spending and taxes.

But unlike Ryan’s budget, which offered broad targets for spending reductions, the measure under consideration this week offered specific programmatic cuts for consideration.

House Democrats charged the Republican proposal amounted to a statement of principle — that the GOP would prefer to cut services for the needy than close tax loopholes for the wealthy.

“We’re gathered here today to talk about important choices, choices that reflect our priorities and choices that reflect our values,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the committee’s ranking member, as the afternoon’s discussion began.

He noted that Congress chose to exempt some key social safety network programs from the sequester in last year’s deal, including food stamps and Medicaid. The House proposal for replacing the automatic cuts, however, leans especially hard on both of those programs.

The Republican proposal includes $36 billion in cuts to the supplemental nutrition assistance program, general known as food stamps, cuts that would reduce benefits to 47 million people and eliminate them for almost 2 million. The cuts come by ending enhanced food stamp benefits enacted in the stimulus plan and tightening rules for becoming eligible to receive food stamps.

Ryan said the cuts were intended to ensure that only those truly qualified for the benefit would receive it. Other cuts, he said, were designed to eliminate duplicative programs and restrain out-of-control spending.

Democrats have also objected to cuts that would halt the expansion of Medicaid benefits, including to children, envisioned in the federal health care bill as well as eliminate a social services block grant used by states to fund a wide range of programs, including combating child abuse, child care assistance and Meals on Wheels.

And the package would dramatically increase the percent federal workers would be required to pay to their pension funds.

By  |  03:36 PM ET, 05/07/2012

 
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