House GOP spares no pet projects in trimming budget

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 21, 2011; 12:04 AM

Everyone knew Republicans would try to defund President Obama's signature health-care overhaul. They've made that clear since taking over the House majority. And it was no surprise that they would strip federal money from NPR and Planned Parenthood. That's been on the to-do list.

But cutting funds for border security and disaster first responders? New military equipment? Farm assistance programs?

In a mammoth spending bill that ended up being about principle more than achievable cuts, the tea-party-charged House Republicans began to define who they are and what kind of government they value.

The GOP plan to fund the government through September is an assault on bedrock Democratic priorities. It imposes substantial spending cuts that would alter the role of government in nearly every area of society - from education and human services to transportation projects, foreign humanitarian aid and medical research. Gone, too, are an array of federal environmental regulations and consumer-product safety measures that private industry has long opposed.

Yet in last week's feverish scramble to shrink government, House Republicans also ran the budgetary buzz saw through costly defense and homeland security programs that their party had historically protected. They left no sacred cows.

"We held no program harmless from our spending cuts, and virtually no area of government escaped this process unscathed," Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said in a statement.

The $1.2 trillion bill, which includes historic cuts totaling more than $61 billion, passed the House on Saturday and now careens toward an uncertain future in the Senate. On Sunday, the Democrats who control the Senate denounced the plan as draconian and warned of a possible government shutdown if a compromise is not reached with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) before existing government funding expires March 4.

In making deep cuts to programs historically supported by their party, House Republicans sought to establish credibility on the one issue they think matters most: cutting the size of government. But they also left themselves open to criticism from their constituents, especially the independent voters who propelled them into the majority last fall, who may be alarmed by the breadth and impact of the cuts.

House Republicans also gave up an opportunity for bipartisanship. The bill passed a divided House at 4:40 a.m. Saturday; after five days of debate, not one Democrat supported it. By eliminating dozens of government programs, Republicans drove away those Democrats most inclined to vote with them - moderate Blue Dogs. The result harked back to Obama's $787 billion stimulus plan, which passed a bitterly divided Congress two years earlier, almost to the day.

No 'rubber-stamping'

"I don't think the Senate will pass this cut," Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the Budget Committee, said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "We will have to negotiate. Look, we're not looking for a government shutdown. But at the same time, we're also not looking at rubber-stamping these really high, elevated spending levels that Congress blew through the joint two years ago."

With both chambers in recess until the week of Feb. 28, Senate Democrats are mounting a public relations blitz this week highlighting specific cuts in the House bill that may be unpopular with the public, such as funding for cancer research. Democrats are also seizing on some line-item cuts to paint Republicans as "schizophrenic" in their "indiscriminate budget cutting," a senior Democratic leadership aide said.

For instance, the bill would cut at least $272 million in border security and immigration enforcement, including fencing and surveillance technology. A Democratic analysis shows this would scale back the number of agents patrolling the Mexican border from 21,370 to 20,500.

"For gosh sakes, we've had everybody talking about secure the borders, secure the borders, secure the borders, and then instead of making some reasonable adjustments in checks we write to oil companies, they're cutting border security," Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said on "Fox News Sunday."

Democratic Sens. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) wrote a letter that they plan to send to Rogers and other Republican leaders Monday that calls this reduction "simply dangerous."

But Republicans, many of whom were elected on mandates to slash spending, said the cuts are painful but necessary.

Like many of his fellow freshmen, Rep. Steve Southerland II (R-Fla.), a funeral home operator serving in his first elected office, pressed aggressively for cuts beyond those proposed by House Republican leaders. On ABC's "This Week," Southerland beat back criticism that the "continuing resolution" spending bill goes too far.

"You know, we talk about draconian measures of the C.R., but draconian is leaving our children with debt that smothers them," Southerland said.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) predicted on "Fox News Sunday" that there will be "controversy" trying to move the bill in the Senate. But he added: "What seems so big in Washington when you lay it out for the American people is small."

Last week's free-for-all on the House floor, in which lawmakers proposed nearly 600 amendments and debated for more than 60 hours, offered a relatively unfiltered view of what members in both parties really believe when it comes to the role of government in society.

One GOP amendment that passed would prohibit any federal money from paying for Obama's "czars" (presidential advisers who have not gone through the Senate confirmation process). A GOP summary of the measure, introduced by Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), lists the officials as "Obamacare Czar, Climate Change Czar, Global Warming Czar, Green Jobs Czar, Car Czar, Guantanamo Bay Closure Czar, Pay Czar and Fairness Doctrine Czar."

Meanwhile, Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, offered an amendment to cut an additional $20 billion, bringing non-defense discretionary spending down to 2008 levels. It failed, 281 to 147. Undeterred, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) went further with a proposal to bring it down to 2006 levels. His amendment failed by a wider margin, 328 to 93.

Then came the Democrats. Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) proposed defunding the missile defense program. That was rejected on a voice vote. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) then proposed reducing defense spending to 2008 levels. That failed, too, 344 to 76.

Informing constituents

With lawmakers back in their districts this week, Democrats are trying to stir public opposition to the Republican plan by focusing on the on-the-ground impact of the spending cuts, including the potential loss of hundreds of thousands of government jobs.

An analysis prepared by Rep. George Miller (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Education and the Workforce Committee, found that cuts to education programs such as Head Start would remove 218,000 low-income children from classrooms; the maximum award for a Pell Grant college scholarship would be reduced from $5,550 to $4,750; and $3 billion in cuts to job-training programs would force 3,000 career centers to close.

McCaskill, on the Fox show, said: "Are we going to take a weed whacker to education funding in this country while we let millionaires continue to deduct interest on their second home? That doesn't seem to be the right priority."

Other spending cuts cover a broad sweep of the government, from eliminating all funding ($15 million) for Presidio National Park, near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, to cutting $450 million for development of an alternate engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The bill would also slash budgets at NASA, the Census Bureau and the Environmental Protection Agency.

In the District, federal funds would drop by $79 million from the previous year, affecting the courts system, school improvement, the Water and Sewer Authority, and the forensics lab, as well as programs for housing, youths and criminal justice.

The GOP plan also strips $4.5 million from the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs Program and prohibits the EPA from enforcing standards to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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