By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
House and Senate Republicans will seek this week to increase spending on port security, homeland defense, health care and education in a clash with GOP leaders struggling to regain the mantle of fiscal discipline for their party.
With the Senate taking up a budget blueprint for 2007 and the House voting on a $91 billion emergency spending bill, lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol will face key tests of their budget-cutting mettle in the coming days. The federal budget deficit is expected to reach $371 billion this year, despite robust economic growth. But GOP leaders insist they can bring down the deficit without increasing taxes if lawmakers are willing to make tough decisions on federal spending.
To that end, the Senate yesterday began debating a plan that would cap nondefense spending at Congress's discretion at $420 billion for the fiscal year that will begin on Oct. 1, $15 billion lower than the fiscal 2006 level.
Under the budget plan, discretionary spending on environmental and natural resource programs would fall 20 percent. Spending on community and regional development programs would be slashed by 32 percent, and politically sensitive transportation spending would be cut by 17 percent.
In the House, conservatives will push tonight to offset at least part of the emergency spending bill's cost with cuts elsewhere in the budget. Of the $91 billion in emergency spending, $19 billion is for additional hurricane relief for the Gulf Coast, a sum that some Republicans believe should be offset by cuts in other programs.
Those moves correspond with political statements from Republican leaders that the party is getting serious about containing government spending. A gathering of GOP presidential hopefuls in Memphis last weekend featured a stream of prominent Republicans lamenting the growth of government since President Bush took office and vowing to reverse the trend.
Those political statements, however, have not been backed by legislative action. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) conceded yesterday that a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats may block the adoption of the spending limits in his budget plan. Facing an election-year revolt, Gregg has already dropped the centerpiece of Bush's budget-cutting efforts for 2007, a $37 billion reduction in the growth of Medicare. And he opted against using in the budget resolution parliamentary language that would have helped Bush extend his first-term tax cuts beyond their 2010 expiration date.
"For the great majority in my conference, they'd like to do some aggressive things on spending," he said. "But we need 51 votes. You might have 48 votes, but that's not 51, and it's as simple as that."
Indeed, by week's end, Congress is likely to approve measures that would increase spending rather than decrease it. Rank-and-file lawmakers from both parties are increasingly convinced that budget cutting has gone far enough.
"We're beyond cutting the fat and beyond the bone. We're down to the marrow," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who plans to introduce an amendment today to raise spending on health care, education and worker safety by billions of dollars above the president's request for next year.
Specter's amendment, co-authored by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), is only the beginning. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said he and Chairman Susan Collins (R-Maine) will introduce an amendment this week to broadly raise spending on homeland defense. Senate Democrats on their own will move to increase spending for homeland security by nearly $3 billion more than Bush's wishes.
Reps. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Calif.) and Jane Harman (D-Calif.) plan to unveil legislation today that would raise spending on port security by $801 million a year. That bill nearly equals a bipartisan Senate legislation that would raise annual port security spending by $835 million. Both bills are scheduled for quick action in the House and Senate homeland security committees in the coming weeks.
Proponents of the measures say the government has avoided such spending for too long under the guise of fiscal restraint. Three times since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the House has voted against Democratic efforts to raise spending on port security. But in the wake of a Dubai company's effort to take over management responsibilities at six major U.S. ports, such opposition appears to be collapsing.
"There simply is no cheap way to be better prepared," Lieberman said yesterday.
If some Republicans are ready to reverse spending cuts, they are not prepared to reverse their tax cuts. Specter said labor, health and education programs were cut last year by $2.1 billion and lost an additional $5 billion in buying power because of inflation. He hopes to reverse all or most of those cuts. But he said that proposing tax increases to pay for that additional spending would only complicate his spending effort.
Budget experts said that kind of thinking is a ticket to ever-increasing deficits.
"No one is willing to sit down and come to grips with the fundamental problem that you can't run a 21st-century government on a 1950s revenue base," said Urban Institute President Robert D. Reischauer, a former director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.