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Trump administration scrambles to defend budget cut for Special Olympics

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos received questions and criticism after controversial budget cuts to the Special Olympics on March 26. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

The Trump administration faced withering attacks and bipartisan pushback as it scrambled Wednesday to defend its proposal to kill federal funding for Special Olympics.

President Trump’s budget plan slashes programs of all stripes, but the idea of cutting federal support for a beloved organization generated outrage far and wide.

The issue came up at a House hearing on Tuesday and by Wednesday afternoon, prominent GOP lawmakers were vowing to protect the $17.6 million for Special Olympics, which gives people with intellectual disabilities the chance to compete in a range of athletic contests.

Trump’s proposed 2020 budget marked the third year that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has proposed the cut. But as word spread following Tuesday’s hearing, attacks poured in from Capitol Hill, the presidential campaign trail and Twitter.

DeVos defended the proposal, saying Special Olympics benefits from private philanthropic support.

“The Special Olympics is not a federal program. It’s a private organization. I love its work, and I have personally supported its mission,” she said in a statement Wednesday. “There are dozens of worthy nonprofits that support students and adults with disabilities that don’t get a dime of federal grant money. But given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.”

That did little to calm the storm.

“Trump and DeVos want to slash education spending and defund the Special Olympics after giving tax breaks to the top 1%. Unbelievable,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, said on Twitter. “When we are in the White House we will get our national priorities straight.”

“It’s completely outrageous,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), another Democratic presidential candidate.

Congress has repeatedly rejected Trump’s request to kill the funding and instead has steadily increased the Special Olympics appropriation, from $12.6 million in 2017 to $15.1 million in 2018 to $17.6 million this year.

The proposal appeared dead again this year. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the top Republican on the Senate panel that oversees appropriations for the Education Department, said in a statement that his chamber’s bill will not cut the funding.

He said he is proud that Missouri is home to the largest Special Olympics training facility in the world and that he had just returned from the World Games in the United Arab Emirates this month. He said he saw, “as I have many times before, what a huge impact the organization has on athletes, their families and their communities.”

This year’s World Games included more than 7,000 athletes from 170 countries. Special Olympics’ motto — “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt” — has resonated with many people, as has the spirit of competition and mutual support that the games engender.

On Tuesday, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who oversaw the 2002 Winter Olympics, voiced support for federal funding, saying the games play “a great role in the lives of many, many Americans and many people around the world.”

Former Ohio governor John Kasich, another Republican, called the proposal to end federal funding “outrageous” and “ridiculous.”

And in the House, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Appropriations subcommittee on education, agreed that the final bill would retain Special Olympics funding. “There is no doubt that will be the case,” he said.

The maelstrom was ignited Tuesday on Capitol Hill when House Democrats who sit on an Appropriations subcommittee pressed DeVos to defend her budget plan.

“Do you know how many kids are going to be affected by that cut?” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) asked. The education secretary said she didn’t know. “I’ll answer for you,” he replied. “It’s 272,000 kids.”

A representative from Special Olympics did not return a request for comment Wednesday.

Special Olympics is one of many programs the Trump budget eliminates or slashes. Overall, the budget slices $8.5 billion from the Education Department, a 12 percent reduction.

At the hearing, DeVos made little headway in her defense, partly because she was cut off by Democratic lawmakers.

“We had to make some difficult decisions with this budget,” she said. She added: “I think Special Olympics is an awesome organization, one that is well-supported by the philanthropic sector as well.”

Pocan’s office posted a video of their exchange to Twitter on Tuesday evening, but even his aides said they were not sure why it took off so dramatically. By Wednesday afternoon, the video had been viewed more than 1.1 million times. One aide attributed it to a combination of DeVos’s unpopularity and the popularity of Special Olympics.

On Wednesday, DeVos’s statement called the criticism “unacceptable, shameful and counterproductive” and defended her budget plan, even as she expressed support for the group’s mission. In 2017, DeVos, a billionaire, donated her salary to four charities, including Special Olympics.

She and others in the agency appeared frustrated they were not getting credit for maintaining level funding of $13.2 billion for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which is the principal source of federal funding for special education in public schools.

Mike DeBonis and Erica Werner contributed to this report.