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Republicans rebuff Trump push to cut spending as party seeks to limit midterm losses

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) on Capitol Hill last month. (Aaron Bernstein/Reuters)

Republican lawmakers are pushing back against President Trump’s request for Congress to cut $15 billion from programs including children’s health insurance and Ebola disaster relief, saying the vote could make them vulnerable to Democratic attacks in this year’s midterm campaign.

“I worry about the messaging the Democrats will be able to do off it,” said Rep. Ryan A. Costello (R-Pa.), voicing a concern shared by numerous other lawmakers. “Those ads write themselves.”

The dispute comes as House leaders face pressure from conservatives to take steps on other fronts that could excite the GOP base but create political problems for lawmakers in tough races as the midterm elections loom.

House conservatives are refusing this week to vote for a controversial but crucial farm bill unless leadership pledges to put forward a hard-line immigration bill. They are also pushing for a House budget resolution that could gut safety-net programs, creating a tough dynamic for House leaders not enthusiastic about giving Democratic challengers talking points this fall.

A vote for the $15 billion in spending cuts could be helpful for House Republicans facing upcoming primary challenges from the right in states including Alabama, California, Florida and New York. But other Republicans are balking, raising questions about whether the House will be able to pass the administration’s spending-cut request.

The package was presented to Congress last week in a gesture aimed at exhibiting fiscal restraint after conservative backlash over the $1.3 trillion government spending bill that President Trump signed grudgingly in March. But the targeted sums amount to less than half a percent of total federal spending.

Leaders were eyeing a House vote on the package as early as this week, but that has now been delayed and may not take place until after Congress’s Memorial Day break. And even if the package does pass the House, few expect it to clear the Senate — which raises even more questions for some GOP House members about why they should vote on it in the first place.

“I think it’s probably going to go nowhere over here,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), noting that unlike spending on programs such as Medicare and Social Security, the relatively minuscule sum of discretionary spending targeted in the White House request is hardly a major driver of the nation’s debt.

“So I don’t buy the construct of this is why we’re in debt,” Graham said. “And it would be politically kind of stupid to do some of these things.”

The request aims to use an obscure procedure called “rescission” to claw back unspent funds from previously approved accounts, money many Republicans and administration officials argue is lying unused anyway. But the list of targeted programs has allowed Democrats to make political hay out of the situation and cast it as a “cynical step in the raw deal Republicans are forcing on America’s families,” in the words of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

That type of rhetoric coming from Democrats has spooked some on the GOP side.

“It’s going to require a varsity-level effort to explain it’s not a cut, you had money left over and all that,” said Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.). “So on the facts I may find my way to doing that. But it’s like, Jesus, why don’t you pick the tallest messaging hill for us to climb — for a symbol.”

Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.) said he could not support the request, because it targets children’s health insurance in addition to $107 million in unobligated funds from a disaster-relief account for Hurricane Sandy.

“If it’s sitting unused and it’s no longer authorized, then it doesn’t save anything to actually do the rescission,” MacArthur said. “But it sends a terrible message to people about our commitment to both children’s health insurance and Sandy relief.”

Rep. Bill Flores (R-Tex.) said Wednesday that he supports the administration’s request, arguing that “any time you can save the taxpayer money, it’s a worthwhile exercise.”

But Flores also warned, “We need to make sure we get the messaging right, because the other side is coming out with just abject lies about it.”

The debate over the rescission request comes as Republicans are also giving Democrats political fodder on other fronts, including by moving toward a vote on a farm bill later this week in the House that Democrats say could kick hundreds of thousands of people off food stamps, and by preparing to write a budget in the House that could contain cuts to other popular programs.

The House version of the farm bill is headed for certain death in the Senate, where there is not sufficient support to tighten up work requirements on food stamp recipients the way House Republicans envision. And even if the House ends up passing a budget, which is no sure thing, the document would not have the force of law.

Nonetheless, Democrats are delighted at the talking points they say Republicans are giving them heading toward midterm elections, with control of Congress at stake.

“I don’t understand the political calculation in doing that. And if it’s a matter of principle, then fine, certainly I respect them for taking principled stances,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said of the various GOP moves. “But those are things we’d love to run against — and will.”

For their part, many Republicans defended the steps they are taking as good policy, if not always the best politics.

“Obviously anything we do with spending is going to present an opportunity for my friends on the other side of the aisle to claim that, you know, we’re trying to yank the rug out from underneath somebody,” said House Budget Committee Chairman Steve Womack (R-Ark.) “But you know, I’m motivated by the fact that we have a $21 trillion debt and trillion-dollar deficits going forward, and that’s not going away.”

The GOP also faces the continual straddle of satisfying the most conservative elements of its base without taking steps that could alienate the voters who will be crucial in suburban swing House districts.

On the rescissions request, for example, the White House pared back and refocused its initial plans after pushback from Republican leaders who argued against trying to undo the $1.3 trillion spending deal — which Trump has complained about ever since signing it but which was struck on a bipartisan basis on Capitol Hill. But that left conservatives wanting more, including the Koch-backed group Americans for Prosperity, which promptly released a list of $45 billion in proposed spending cuts in areas ranging from the National Endowment for the Arts to the State Department and the FBI.

White House officials have indicated that the first $15 billion request would be followed by at least one more, for an additional $10 billion, that could take aim at spending in the $1.3 trillion “omnibus” spending bill as well as other areas.

In defending the $7 billion in cuts targeted for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, White House legislative director Marc Short argued last week that with the program reauthorized for six years as part of the recent spending deal, the rescission request largely targets money that cannot be used.

“There’s significant funding left in the CHIP account for the funds they’re looking to rescind that have actually technically expired,” Short said. “And so in many cases Congress continues to not want you to rescind it because they say, well, we might go tap into it at some point in the future. But my understanding . . . is that those are actually expired accounts and not really able to be even used anymore.”

Pressed by reporters on Capitol Hill about the ammunition the request could be giving to Democrats, Short argued: “They just reauthorized six years of CHIP funding. We supported that. We were part of helping to craft that. So we’re supportive of the CHIP program.”

The rescission request also targets $252 million in unspent emergency international disaster assistance to address the Ebola crisis, an item Democrats seized on after news of a reemergence of Ebola in Congo last week.

Democrats argue that much of the money being targeted is for important programs, such as public housing and renewable energy, and could eventually be used, while many Republicans disagree. But some Republicans say that the whole effort has become an exercise in political posturing that would do next to nothing to affect the nation’s very real deficit issues.

“I think that the optics are exaggerated on both sides,” said Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.). “They’re exaggerated from the right in the suggestion that somehow this means fiscal restraint from the Republican side. It doesn’t. The optics are magnified and exaggerated on the Democratic side saying this is some big cut to social programs. Again, it’s one-third of 1 percent.”