WASHINGTON -- The Republican-led House is about to lay bare the choice between social programs and Pentagon spending in an age of austerity.
It will take up legislation this week to slice $261 billion from food stamps, Medicaid, social services and other programs for struggling Americans over the next decade to stave off more than $50 billion in military spending cuts scheduled to take effect next year.
The House Budget Committee on Monday took up budget bills passed out of six different committees last month, packaged them and sent them, on a party-line vote, to the full House as one bill. A separate bill, also approved by the committee, would formally lift the threat of automatic Pentagon cuts next year.
Neither of the measures will pass the Senate, but the final House vote this Thursday amounts to a Republican bet that voters will reward the party for its tough-love priorities, despite Democratic attacks that will only build in intensity this week. "We are here to meet our legal and our moral obligations to lead," said the House Budget Committee chairman, Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis.
Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., accused Republicans of "socking it to children, older Americans and disabled Americans," and going "for the jugular."
The House showdown was set up by last summer's protracted crisis over the debt ceiling, when Republicans agreed to raise the nation's statutory borrowing limit in exchange for guaranteed deficit reduction of $1.2 trillion over 10 years, which was supposed to come out of a special select committee on the deficit.
When that committee failed to reach agreement in November, the debt ceiling deal's backup -- a process called sequestration -- kicked in, mandating more than $1 trillion in across-the-board spending cuts to defense and domestic programs. Those cuts were supposed to exempt programs that are deemed needed for the most vulnerable.
Both parties agree that the $55 billion cut to defense coming Jan. 1 -- only the first installment of a half-trillion in cuts over 10 years -- could be damaging. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the cuts "devastating" and predicted that they would yield "the smallest ground force since 1940" and the smallest naval fleet since 1915.
But while Democrats want to mitigate the cuts with some tax increases, Republicans want to eliminate them altogether without raising taxes. "We shouldn't be taking more from hard-working Americans to fix Washington's mistakes," Mr. Ryan said Monday.
The new legislation starkly lays out the costs of that pledge. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bill would push 1.8 million people off food stamps and could cost 280,000 children their school lunch subsidies and 300,000 children their health insurance coverage through the federal and state children's health insurance program. Elimination of the social services block grant to state and local governments would hit child-abuse prevention programs, Meals on Wheels and child care.
A quarter of the cuts in the bill would come from programs for the poor. Cuts to Medicaid, food stamps and subsidized insurance premiums under the health care law make up more than a third of the package's savings, or $108 billion over 10 years.
The bill would also eliminate a fund set up by the 2010 Wall Street regulation law and financed by the big banks that would be used in the event of future bailouts. Republicans say that would save $22.4 billion over 10 years, because a bailout within that window could exceed the size of the fund. And caps on medical malpractice lawsuits would save the government $40 billion to $56 billion over a decade, according to the legislation.
The Budget Committee debate Monday followed a familiar script: Democrats accused Republicans of cruelty, and Republicans said "common sense" cuts to duplicative programs would not lead to any real pain.
Democrats had the raw Congressional Budget Office numbers on their side: $23.5 billion from Medicaid and children's health care, $4.2 billion from hospitals that serve the poor and uninsured, and $33.7 billion from supplemental nutrition assistance. Republicans say they have the details on their side.
Spending on the child tax credit for working poor families would be curtailed by demanding that recipients produce a Social Security number. Cuts to Medicaid would come in part by repealing so-called maintenance-of-effort regulations on the states that mandate coverage. Republicans say without such strings, state governments will find a more efficient way to provide health care for the poor.
"We talk about values. Deficit spending is not a value," said Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas. "Deficit spending is what's going to bankrupt our children."
But the legislation in question is not aimed largely at deficit reduction. It is aimed at shifting cuts from defense to domestic programs.
Senate Democratic leaders made clear that they would not come to the table until Republicans put taxes up for negotiation. "The only way to avoid sequestration is to work with us on a balanced and fair approach that protects middle-class families," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "Until Republicans realize that, they will only be negotiating with themselves."
First Published May 8, 2012 12:00 AM