House to vote on GOP plan that would forestall Pentagon cuts

The House is expected to vote Thursday on a Republican plan that would spare the Pentagon from the deep across-the-board spending cuts envisioned as part of last summer’s debt-ceiling agreement, reviving what has been an emotional debate in Washington about the best ways to reduce the federal budget deficit.

With a series of troubling end-of-year deadlines looming, Republicans are proposing to replace the first round of $110 billion in reductions, which are set to take effect in January.

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The cuts are a first-year down payment on $1.2 trillion in reductions spread over 10 years, which were to be split evenly between the military and domestic programs.

To forestall the defense hit, the GOP proposal would cut funding for food stamps, eliminate key pieces of the federal health-care law and slash funding designed to help the government better monitor the financial sector.

The package would cut $36 billion from the food stamp program by reducing benefits to recipients and tightening eligibility. It would cut Medicaid by $22.7 billion and eliminate a new fund devoted to preventive care established in the Democratic health-care reform law.

The measure would save $2.8 billion by ending a program that helps homeowners facing foreclosure and $22.6 billion by ending federal regulators’ new authority to shut down struggling financial firms deemed big enough to threaten the economy.

The package would save $18.4 billion this year and $261.5 billion over the next 10 years.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Wednesday that the planned vote amounts to Republicans reneging on commitments made as part of the debt deal, which had envisioned the across-the-board cut as a consequence for Democrats and Republicans unable to reach a bipartisan deal on a better way to reduce the debt.

He suggested that Senate Democrats were willing to let the defense cuts take effect if Republicans do not budge on including some higher tax revenue in an alternative debt deal.

“Those cuts were designed to be tough enough to force lawmakers to compromise,” Reid said. “They were designed to be tough enough to force the two sides to reach a balanced deal.”

Fearful of the impact of the defense cuts — which would amount to a 10 percent hit to the military — GOP leaders said they are compelled to act.

“We’re leading. We’re planning. We’re showing specifics,” House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Tuesday. “We’re showing the American people how, if Congress does its job, we can actually . . . prevent this [cut] from disproportionately decimating our military at a time when we’re asking our men and women to sacrifice for our freedoms.”

The Democratic-held Senate opposes the Republican proposal and members of both parties have said they think the automatic cuts ultimately could be replaced only as part of a major bipartisan deal that would not be struck until after the November election.

But Republicans said it is important to lay out a GOP vision for how to curb red ink without the defense cuts and asserted that voters would reward them for advancing tough choices.

“We can debate whether it’s politically wise, but it’s certainly politically courageous,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). “People know at the end of the day that this is not going to be all sunshine and cotton candy. It’s going to be a little tough.”

Democrats said that the Republican proposal gives voters a clear road map of the GOP’s austerity vision, in which the deficit would be reduced by cutting programs for the poor without attempting to raise new tax revenue.

Democrats proposed an alternative Wednesday that would replace the across-the-board cut with a $116.5 billion package that would contain nearly $31.5 billion in spending cuts and $85 billion in new revenue. The new revenue would come from ending subsidies to oil and gas companies; slashing agriculture subsidies; and imposing the “Buffett rule,” which would require those making more than $1 million a year pay an effective tax rate of no less than 30 percent.

“I was surprised they did this, because it just highlights how twisted and lopsided their priorities are,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the budget committee.

The automatic cuts, known as “sequestration,” are a result of the repeated inability of Democrats and Republicans to reach a deficit-reduction pact.

Under the August deal to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, Congress agreed to impose new annual limits on spending that resulted in nearly $1 trillion in immediate cuts over the next decade.

They also agreed to establish a new bipartisan committee that was charged with brokering a deal to reduce deficits by an additional $1.2 trillion.

To try to force agreement, Congress designed a painful consequence for failure: Without a deal, the budget would automatically be cut by the same amount.

The stick was designed to hurt Democrats because it would mean the debt would be reduced only through spending cuts, rather than by raising new revenue through tax increases. It was intended to be difficult for Republicans, too, because defense spending would take a big hit.

But the specter of the cuts did little to force agreement, and the “supercommittee” disbanded without a deal in November.

 
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