Congress ready to cut budget


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WASHINGTON -- This week's pair of funding issues are pitting the Obama administration's scalpel against the Republican meat ax, as federal spending rhetoric is translated into sometimes painful cuts -- some of which would hit Pennsylvania hard.

On Monday President Barack Obama released his $3.7 trillion budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning in October. Republicans attacked the plan as too timid on spending cuts and deficit reduction, while some Democrats, including Pennsylvania's Sen. Bob Casey, balked at big cuts to programs they deem worthwhile.

The GOP-controlled House, meanwhile, begins debate today on a continuing resolution to fund the government from May to October, as Congress never adopted Mr. Obama's fiscal year 2011 budget. The Republican plan -- altered late last week to cut tens of billions more in the face of concerns from the caucus' right wing -- would cut spending by $60 billion from fiscal 2010 and $100 billion from the proposed 2011 budget.

The 12-figure cuts were promised in the GOP's "Pledge to America" during the fall campaign. And when the Appropriations Committee issued a package of cuts that didn't meet that goal this year, the conservative Republican Study Committee -- which counts Butler Rep. Mike Kelly and Centre County Rep. Glenn Thompson among its 175 members -- asked for more cuts.

Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., came back late Friday with a spending bill that met the $100 billion promise, though it altered the pledge to include defense cuts. Democrats immediately pounced on some of the cuts to programs like Head Start early childhood education, food safety inspections and the COPS program to hire police officers.

But Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., predicted the continuing resolution -- after it goes through a lengthy debate and amendment process this week -- will pass easily, and it seemed to mollify the conservatives.

"I'm pleased that we're talking about $100 billion," Mr. Thompson said Monday. "That is a tremendous amount of money, but it's almost insignificant when you think about a country that has over $14 trillion in debt."

Mr. Thompson acknowledged that the cuts aren't all easy.

"Certainly there's things out there, there are some good programs that have been slated for reduction," he said. "But many of those programs have been ramped up considerably in a closed process through the stimulus. ... Some of the cuts we're talking about are just fulfilling the pledge of returning to pre-2008 [spending] levels."

Mr. Kelly, though, said it's "not difficult at all" to make the necessary cuts. He said voters, who thrust Mr. Kelly and a large freshman Republican class into office in the fall, understand the need to reverse the budgetary course because the current deficits are unsustainable.

Republicans are hopeful they can lure some Democrats on board for the vote, in particular the dwindling Blue Dog caucus, which includes Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless.

Mr. Altmire said he will work with other members this week on amendments, perhaps to prevent cuts to Veterans Affairs or medical research.

The relative austerity forced by House conservatives stands little chance of getting 60 votes to end debate in the Democrat-controlled Senate. The upper chamber's Appropriations chairman, Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said in a statement that the plan "would knock the legs out from under our nascent economic recovery, kill jobs, and do virtually nothing to address the long-term fiscal crisis facing our country."

Mr. Inouye raised the prospect of a government shutdown, which would happen if Congress does not agree to a temporary funding measure by March 4. But in a news conference Monday, Mr. Cantor disputed the notion that the GOP was trying to grind the government to a halt.

"Why is it necessarily that you are only hearing shutdown from one side?" he said. "We have consistently said it is not our intention to shut down this government. Again, that is political talk, and we ought to get that off the table, and let's go about the real business of trying to cut spending."

As the funding fight continues, Congress will stage a series of hearings on Mr. Obama's fiscal year 2012 proposal, which estimates a $1.1 trillion deficit. It proposes a spending reduction of $90 billion from the never-enacted 2011 budget but an increase over the 2010 budget of more than $200 billion. The lack of more serious cuts, the administration's additional spending on education and transportation initiatives, proposed elimination of tax breaks for oil companies and the fact that the proposal does not address entitlement spending all brought jeers from the GOP.

Not all Democrats gathered in the president's corner either. A proposal to halve the funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program from $5 billion to $2.5 billion drew a rebuke from more than 30 senators -- including Mr. Casey and three northeastern Republicans -- in the form of a letter to the Office of Management and Budget. Pennsylvania received $282 million in LIHEAP funds last year, second only to New York.

In addition, Mr. Obama's budget cuts discretionary funding for the Army Corps of Engineers by $900 million. Cuts for construction and maintenance could affect locks and dams in southwestern Pennsylvania. Mr. Casey obtained earmarks for about $14 million worth of lock and dam projects in the 2011 budget, but earmarks have been stripped from the continuing resolutions.

Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, said he was concerned about LIHEAP and will be "trying to explain to people from the South what that's all about." But he said that the fiscal chasm the country is facing requires tough choices.

"One way or another this is going to force members to really sit down over the next couple of weeks as this goes to conference, as the Senate does their thing, to really take very hard looks at this thing," Mr. Murphy said.

"There's no escaping the seriousness of this. We can't go another few months or another year and keep throwing money at this."


Daniel Malloy: dmalloy@post-gazette.com or 1-202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC.


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