By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
Republicans began targeting key programs for budget cuts yesterday, from student loans and health care to food stamps and foster care. But the tough measures immediately drew staunch opposition from anti-poverty groups, businesses and moderate Republicans.
Sixteen congressional committees began cobbling together one of the most comprehensive bills in years, touching issues such as trade policy, prescription drug reimbursements, agriculture price supports and the future of welfare.
The rash of spending that followed Hurricane Katrina two months ago has emboldened conservatives to push for cuts far beyond what Congress could agree to in a budget blueprint in the spring.
"Listen, we're broke. Let's face it," said Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, which will try today to complete legislation saving $18.1 billion over five years from pension protection and student loan programs.
But the same hurricane has also pricked the conscience of Democrats and some Republican moderates who are reluctant to trim anti-poverty programs in light of the misfortune that Katrina spotlighted.
"Members of Congress are breaking this down; they're not just looking at a bottom-line, symbolic number," said Rep. Michael N. Castle (Del.), a leader of House Republican moderates who stand as a major impediment to the final legislation.
This spring, Congress approved a fiscal 2006 budget blueprint calling for $35 billion in savings over five years. Now House leaders are trying to win enough votes to increase those projected savings by $15 billion. But they are encountering stiff opposition from rank-and-file House members, as well as from the Senate. And the political problems may only get worse as details emerge of how House committees would achieve the $50 billion in savings demanded by the revised budget.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) convened a roundtable of Katrina survivors, who pleaded with lawmakers to set the budget cuts aside, then lobbied moderate Republicans personally.
"I can't believe that some people in Washington think that, after a Category 5 hurricane, the solution is to unleash a Category 5 hurricane on working people," said Michele Baker, a custodian for the Orleans Parish School District, who weathered Katrina in her car, spent the aftermath in the Louisiana Superdome and now has no job.
The House Ways and Means Committee today will begin drafting legislation that would save about $8 billion over five years, eight times the $1 billion target the panel was given in the spring. To do it, Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) would cut back federal aid to state child-support enforcement programs, limit federal payments to some foster care families, and cut welfare payments to the disabled. He would also eliminate a politically popular but controversial trade rule that directs duties collected on some imports to companies disadvantaged by unfair foreign trade practices. Instead, those duties would go to the federal government.
Ways and Means officials said the child-support proposal would change the federal matching rate for child-support enforcement from a 66 percent share to a 50 percent share that would be more in line with other federal and state partnerships, saving $3.8 billion through 2010. The foster care provision would restore the traditional eligibility rules that were expanded by a court decision in 2003. And the change in the "Byrd Amendment" on trade would put the United States in accord with international trade rules and bring in $3.5 billion over five years.
But the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the cut in child-support enforcement aid would result in a five-year drop in collections of $6 billion -- and nearly $17 billion over 10 years.
"They are now proposing policies that will cut child-support payments to single mothers who are struggling to provide for their children," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), the Ways and Means Committee's ranking Democrat.
Foster-care cuts of nearly $600 million would cease payments to children taken from the home of impoverished grandparents or other relatives who are not their parents, according to the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Equally controversial will be cuts to the growth of Medicaid under consideration in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The committee's plan, to be formally drafted tomorrow, would slice $3 billion over five years from Medicaid prescription-drug payments and more than $6 billion from other parts of the program. Committee aides framed the cuts as marginal -- even with them, Medicaid spending will grow 7 percent through the end of the decade, rather than the 7.3 percent currently expected.
"I would submit to you that Medicaid in its current form is already hurting the poor," said Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.). "This committee will not stand by and do nothing while Medicaid slowly collapses."
Under Barton's proposal, states for the first time would be allowed to charge some Medicaid-eligible children premiums and co-payments. Even children well under the poverty line could be hit with drug and emergency-room co-payments. The states would also be freed from early diagnostic programs currently required under Medicaid for children just over the poverty line.