WASHINGTON – Republicans controlling the House announced plans Wednesday to cut $30 billion from the day-to-day budgets of Cabinet agencies, doubling down on cuts to domestic programs just weeks after a split-the-differences bargain with President Barack Obama.
The moves by the powerful lawmakers atop the House Appropriations Committee are the first concrete steps to try to implement a tight-fisted 2012 budget plan approved by Republicans' last month. It would build on $38 billion in savings enacted in a hard-fought agreement with Obama over the current year's budget.
The $30 billion in savings from agency operating budgets that have to be annually approved by Congress seems small compared to deficits that could top $1.6 trillion this year. But they're actually a key building block in eventually wrestling the deficit under control, assuming Congress can make the cuts now and stick with them year after year in the face of inflation.
That's a big "if."
Obama and his Democratic allies controlling the Senate are sure to battle hard against cuts of this size, even though Obama told Senate Democrats Wednesday not to adopt unyielding positions in their budget talks with Republicans. Obama, meeting with senators at the White House, even cautioned that painful cuts are in store to achieve a bipartisan agreement on deficit reduction, according to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Reid said Obama told them not to do what he contended Republicans have done: "Drawing these lines in the sand. We can't do that."
Obama on Wednesday also said lawmakers may have to rely on automatic spending cuts and tax increases to reach a deal on deficit reduction.
"I think what we're going to end up having to do probably is to set some targets and say, you know, those targets have to be hit if not automatically, some cuts and tax increases start taking place," Obama told CBS News. "And that will give incentive for us to negotiate and figure something out."
Republicans have strongly opposed any mechanism that would trigger a tax increase to close the deficit.
Under the House Appropriations Committee plan, the cuts to domestic programs like education, housing subsidies and infrastructure projects will feel much more severe because the Pentagon — which accounts for more than half of the budget that passes through the Appropriations panel each year — would actually receive a $17 billion, 3 percent boost. Domestic agencies and foreign aid accounts would have to absorb $47 billion in cuts, averaging about 9 percent.
"Brutal ... brutal," said Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington, the top Democrat on the Appropriations panel, who warned of cuts to food inspection, Pell Grants that provide college aid for low-income students, community development grants, food aid to low-income pregnant women and their children, and grants to community action agencies that serve the poor. "Those are all things that are going to hurt the lowest-income people in this country."
A third of the entire budget passes through the Appropriations panel, once reviled in some GOP circles for its free-spending ways and addiction to home-state projects known as earmarks. The spending bills are likely to produce a long, angry summer of House floor fights, but the ultimate fate of the spending bill probably lie in broader budget talks with the White House involving must-do legislation to allow the government to continue to borrow to meet its obligations. The Senate has yet to pass a budget blueprint that's a precursor to action on spending bills.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., released a broad outline of the panel's plan to cut $30 billion from appropriated accounts. That's on top of $38 billion carved from agency budgets in last month's spending showdown legislation and it keeps a campaign promise to bring domestic agency budgets, on average, to levels in place before Obama took office. The slow, steady advance of the actual legislation begins in two Appropriations subpanels on Friday.
"There are going to be some cuts to agencies that people aren't used to because they've seen double-digit increases," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. What are we going down to? 2008 levels? That wasn't exactly austere times."
The cuts are far larger, however, when measured against Obama's budget request for the 2012 budget year that begins in October. The GOP plan whacks $122 billion from Obama's request, with cuts falling particularly hardest on foreign aid, agricultural programs, and education, job training and health care accounts.
Veterans' accounts would be spared and Congress' own budget would face a 5 percent cut that's well below the double-digit hits most domestic agencies would take. Homeland security spending would absorb a $1.1 billion decrease of 3 percent.
The plan also endorses Obama's $119 billion request for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and $7.6 billion in anti-terror foreign aid.
It may not sound like much measured against the nation's $14.3 trillion debt, but the GOP's broader budget plans are in fact largely anchored by promises to cut domestic agency budgets this year and then freeze them well into the future. These "caps" on the spending that Congress approves each year — if lawmakers can stick to them — would produce more than $1.6 trillion in savings when measured against official "baseline" estimates.
Other elements of the GOP's budget plans are dead on arrival with the White House, including sweeping cuts to Medicaid and food stamps and a plan to transform Medicare into a voucher-like program in which future beneficiaries — those presently 54 years old and younger — would purchase health insurance instead of having the government pay doctor and hospital bills directly.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, says he wants "trillions" in spending cuts attached to the so-called debt limit measure. "Caps" on the amount of money available for the appropriations bills are being eyed as a component of any deal between the White House and Republicans controlling the House.
The nuts-and-bolts work of the appropriators comes amid lots of motion — but little movement — on other deficit-reduction fronts:
— A bipartisan "Gang of Six" senators is struggling behind closed doors to reach agreement on a plan cutting $4 trillion from the deficit over the coming decade with a 3/1 mix of spending cuts to tax increases. House Republicans say that even if the group reaches agreement, its prescriptions are nonstarter.
— The chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Kent Conrad, D-N.D., is preparing a draft plan with a 50/50 mix of spending cuts to tax increases. Even if moderate Democrats could stomach voting for $2 trillion in tax increases over 10 years to help pass the measure, the chances of Senate Democrats and tea party-backed House Republicans reaching agreement seem extremely unlikely.
— Vice President Joe Biden is hosting talks with a bipartisan group of lawmakers aimed at producing deficit cuts to attach to the debt limit increase legislation. Even Biden admits it's an open question as to whether the group will "get to the finish line."
— Besides his session with Senate Democrats at the White House Wednesday, Obama is meeting with Senate Republicans on Thursday. House Democrats and Republicans are getting audiences soon.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Erica Werner contributed to this report.
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