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Md., Va. senators prepare to fight proposed cuts to area programs

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011; 10:06 PM

When U.S. senators return to Capitol Hill next week to decide how to deal with a House-passed budget-cutting bill, the neighbors will be watching closely.

The House measure, which proposes to slice more than $60 billion in federal spending, would be particularly acute in the Washington area. The flow of federal money into local coffers would be curtailed, and policy changes opposed by many regional officials could become mandates.

If enacted, the House bill would cut $150 million from the Metro system's budget for capital projects. It would block the Environmental Protection Agency from implementing its sweeping plan to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. It would slice $80 million from the District's budget for courts, schools and other programs. And it would re-impose controversial "riders" preventing the District from spending its money on needle-exchange programs and abortions for low-income women.

More broadly, the House bill's proposed funding levels could require layoffs for thousands of federal employees, many of whom live in the Washington region.

Every House Republican from Maryland and Virginia voted for the budget measure, saying deep cuts are needed to get the deficit under control. But all four senators from the two states are Democrats, and they said they will try to prevent many of those provisions from making it through their chamber into law.

Whatever spending deal is struck among Democrats, Republicans and President Obama is almost certain to contain some budget cuts, so area lawmakers may have to pick their battles. At this point, local senators sound most determined to preserve funding for Metro.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) said he would "find it difficult to accept" any cuts, because that could imperil the careful funding balance that has been established for Metro in which the federal contribution of $150 million is matched by $50 million each from the District, Maryland and Virginia.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) said that "it's essential that we keep our federal commitment, because it isn't just $150 million. Cutting that would mean a loss of $300 million for Metro, because the local contributions are tied to the federal."

Some area Republicans, including Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, also have said they oppose the cut to Metro funding.

Angela Gates, a spokeswoman for Metro, said that "federal funding is absolutely vital to Metro's work." The capital budget is used to replace old rail cars, repair tracks and maintain overall safety standards.

Cardin also called blocking funding for the bay cleanup "a non-starter. I'll do everything I can to make sure the [EPA] programs are defended."

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who serves as vice chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, added the amendment that would prevent the EPA, for the next seven months, from going forward with its plan to require six states and the District to reduce pollution in the bay by specific amounts by 2025.

Goodlatte's move was welcomed by agricultural groups, who have complained that the EPA plan would impose huge, unrealistic costs on farmers.

But the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said the move would "undo 25 years' worth of bipartisan and broad-based efforts to save the Chesapeake Bay."

Cardin said that although Senate Democrats would have to compromise with Republicans on the bill's overall funding levels, Democrats should not have to compromise on the "language" in the bill and that the GOP should not use the spending measure to create policy.

Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), said that the Democrat would oppose the House funding cuts. Warner is an advocate for a broader budget deal that would tackle runaway entitlement spending, Hall said, and Republicans' targeting of local programs showed the "folly of focusing deep cuts on a tiny sliver of the overall budget."

In the District, the federal government's funding for the city would take an $80 million hit, and D.C. would face the same restrictions on needle-exchange programs and abortions that were in place the last time Republicans controlled Congress. If House Republicans insist on the restrictions, it's not clear how hard Senate Democrats will be willing to fight against them.

After the House vote, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said she was "rounding up Senate allies who, along with the Obama administration, are committed to preserving D.C.'s home-rule rights and dignity as a local jurisdiction."

Beyond those specific policy prescriptions, the House's bill would also have a broader impact on the local economy.

Stephen Fuller, the director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, estimates that federal spending fuels one-third of the D.C. metropolitan area's $410 billion economy. Any significant cut in government outlays - or layoffs of federal employees - would hit the region hard.

"Our federal employees have a contract with their government," Mikulski said. "That contract should be honored."

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