House Panel Approves Cuts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 1999; Page A13
The House Appropriations Committee voted yesterday to slash spending on education and other social programs, the opening shot in a campaign to persuade congressional leaders and the White House to lift the strict spending limits Congress has imposed on itself.
Even as they put together an austere spending blueprint for the rest of the year, lawmakers from both parties predicted that the new budget plan would lead to a legislative train wreck resembling the situation last fall, when Congress added billions of dollars in extra spending at the end of the legislative calendar.
Moderate Republican Rep. John Edward Porter (Ill.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that faces the most severe cuts, said flatly that Congress would be forced to negotiate a last-minute compromise with the White House if GOP leaders did not boost spending.
"I think we're headed for another debacle," Porter said.
Porter chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, and education, whose annual spending bill is difficult to pass even in normal times. The bill funds a variety of programs ranging from low-income heating assistance and summer jobs for teenagers to Head Start and job training.
The agencies under the committee's purview are slated to receive $78 billion next fiscal year, under the spending plan approved yesterday along party lines. That represents a $10.7 billion reduction over this year's budget, and Porter said he would be forced to reduce popular programs such as college Pell grants and special education by more than 15 percent. Because the House GOP is also committed to doubling funding for the National Institutes of Health over five years, other programs would have to be slashed even further.
"I can't do anything," Porter said, adding that he will be unable to draft a workable bill until Republican leaders agree to provide more money. "There hasn't been any response. I think they're going to have to come to grips with it."
"Cuts of this magnitude, implemented in one year, are pretty unprecedented," said Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank. "They're a lot more than the political system can bear, and the political system won't bear them. They're not going to happen."
But House leaders appear determined to move forward under the current budget restrictions. In a closed-door meeting Tuesday, they agreed to have Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) coordinate a series of "listening sessions" to gauge the mood of rank-and-file members on appropriations.
"The spending caps are part of reality," said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
Republicans are anxious to demonstrate their resolve in protecting surplus budget funds for shoring up the Social Security program. Porter said that both parties are afraid of the political damage associated with breaking the existing budget agreement.
"The first one to say 'We're going to adjust the budget caps' can be accused by the other of taking money from Social Security," he said. "It's a political minefield."
Committee Democrats were even more scathing in their assessment of the spending plan for the 13 appropriations bill that fund the operations of government. Rep. Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.) suggested that appropriators "go on strike" until congressional leaders acknowledge they need to allocate more money.
"My suggestion to you is we do nothing and do it seriously," Visclosky told Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.).
Young said he largely agreed with the criticism and had conveyed a similar message to GOP leaders, but noted that he has no choice but to proceed with less controversial bills and save the "difficult" ones for later. Republicans have added money to measures funding items such as military construction and defense, while cutting money for the Interior Department, foreign aid, and veterans' and space programs.
Meanwhile, Senate GOP leaders encountered surprisingly tough criticism of the $15 billion emergency spending bill during a closed meeting of Republicans held in anticipation of today's final vote. Many of those who attended the session complained that the measure, to fund the war in Yugoslavia and provide humanitarian and disaster relief, was too expensive and made too great a use of the budget surplus.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), describing the meeting, said: "I told them it sucks but we ought to pass it."
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