By Lori Montgomery and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 8, 2009
President Obama's modest proposal to slice $17 billion from 121 government programs quickly ran into a buzz saw of opposition on Capitol Hill yesterday, as an array of Democratic lawmakers vowed to fight White House efforts to deprive their favorite initiatives of federal funds.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she is "committed" to keeping a $400 million program that reimburses states for jailing illegal immigrants, a task she called "a total federal responsibility."
Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) said he would oppose "any cuts" in agriculture subsidies because "farmers and farm families depend on this federal assistance."
And Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.) vowed to force the White House to accept delivery of a new presidential helicopter Obama says he doesn't need and doesn't want. The helicopter program, which cost $835 million this year, supports 800 jobs in Hinchey's district. "I do think there's a good chance we can save it," he said.
The news releases began flying as Obama unveiled the long-awaited details of his $3.4 trillion spending plan, including a list of programs he wants to trim or eliminate. Though the proposed reductions represent just one-half of 1 percent of next year's budget, the swift protest was a precursor of the battle Obama will face within his own party to control spending and rein in a budget deficit projected to exceed $1.2 trillion next year.
As small as it is, the list of reductions highlights Obama's first effort to reshape priorities that were tilted heavily toward defense and national security under President George W. Bush. While the Pentagon would get a significant increase overall, more than half Obama's projected savings -- $8.8 billion -- would come out of 14 defense programs, the most from any agency. And for the first time since 2003, the budget would devote more money to the war in Afghanistan than to the one in Iraq.
Stephen Ellis, vice president of the nonprofit Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the budget proposal presents "a real test of presidential leadership."
"What all this is going to come down to is whether this administration is willing to put the political capital and shoe leather into holding Congress to these cuts. Because every one of these programs has some special interest and some lawmaker that thinks it's the greatest thing since sliced bread," Ellis said. "The previous administration had a very long track record of putting up decently thought-out cuts that they basically abandoned the day after the budget came out."
White House Budget Director Peter Orszag said he realizes that "this is a cooperative process with Congress," and that he has been "heartened by meetings with lawmakers, who are also actively seeking a variety of savings." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has asked House committee chairs to come up with their own list of savings by early next month.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee in charge of agriculture spending, said lawmakers' lists may wind up replacing the president's list, which she said has a number of worrisome ideas. She cited a plan to eliminate an early childhood education program called Even Start, which the Obama administration has called ineffective.
"There may be some similar. There may be some different. There may be new ones added to the list," DeLauro said. "But we're all on the same wavelength. We know we've got to take a look at where we cut back on spending."
The budget documents released yesterday total more than 1,500 pages and fill in details of the broad outline that Obama released in February and that Congress approved last week. A massive appendix lists program-by-program requests for the roughly 40 percent of the budget controlled by Congress, and a separate tome details programs targeted for elimination.
The volume of cuts is weighted heavily toward the Pentagon, where Obama is asking Congress to cancel seven programs and to reduce seven others. In his final budget, Bush didn't touch the Pentagon, though he targeted some programs earlier in his presidency.
At Homeland Security, the massive agency Bush created in his first term, Obama is proposing to cut four programs, totaling $90 million, including a $35 million grant program that pays for local emergency operations centers. Obama argues that Congress has earmarked more than half the money in previous years for pet projects, rather than distributing merit-based grants.
The White House also would eliminate $12 million in security grants for inter-city bus travel, arguing that bus companies have used money to pay for "GPS-type tracking systems" that they could buy on their own. Obama also would eliminate new spending to buy advanced-generation sensors to detect nuclear bombs or radioactive materials at U.S. ports and borders, a Bush priority that has had technical problems.
Meanwhile, in a shift on immigration policy, Obama would boost spending at Homeland Security by $206 million to speed processing of immigration cases for refugees, asylum seekers and members of the U.S. military applying for citizenship.
On another sensitive social issue, the White House wants to eliminate two abstinence-only sex-education programs totaling $145 million. Instead, the budget calls for the creation of a new initiative to combat teen pregnancy that would rely on funding from those programs.
Administration officials said 75 percent of funds from the new initiative would be reserved for programs with a record of pregnancy prevention, with the rest available for unproven but "promising models." Abstinence programs could continue to receive funding under the latter category, they said.
The fate of federal funding for abstinence education had been the subject of intense speculation among activists on both sides of the issue. But the administration did not have those cuts on its list of program reductions and instead included them on page 490 of the budget appendix. Administration officials said the cuts were left off the list because the money is being shifted into a broader teen pregnancy program.
Obama's list of cuts includes instances where money would not actually be saved but merely shifted to similar purposes that the administration argues would be more effective. For example, Obama wants to eliminate three non-competitive grant programs run by the Department of Education worth $37 million and replace them with a new competitive grant program that would issue $37 million in grants next year.
The largest domestic program the White House is asking Congress to end is one of the government's two main sources of loans for college students, the Federal Family Education Loan Program, in which the government pays subsidies to private lenders. The administration says the government should issue the loans directly, saving more than $4 billion next year that could be plowed into increase funds for Pell Grants.
While lobbyists for the lending industry have vowed to fight the move, it has broad support on Capitol Hill.
Obama's list of cuts includes few earmarks, the pet projects of lawmakers that he has vowed to curb. Among them: three created by Ted Stevens, the former Republican senator from Alaska whose conviction on corruption charges has recently been thrown out. They include money for highway funding, job training, and the Denali Commission, an independent federal agency that helped pay for infrastructure projects in remote parts of the state.
Stevens is no longer around to defend those programs, but his replacement, Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), stands ready to pick up the slack.
"It simply makes no sense to cut $20 million for the Denali Commission," Begich said in a statement yesterday, adding that he would work to ensure that any budget cuts that affect Alaska are "justified or reversed."
Database editor Sarah Cohen and staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.