Republicans take new aim on cutting Obama agenda

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WASHINGTON -- Congressional Republicans are moving to gut many of President Barack Obama's top priorities with the sharpest spending cuts in a generation and a new push to hold government financing hostage unless the president's signature health care law is stripped of money this fall.

As Mr. Obama prepares to deliver a major economic address today in Illinois, Republicans in Washington are delivering blow after blow to programs he will promote as vital to a more robust economic recovery and a firmer economic future -- from spending on infrastructure and health care to beefing up regulatory agencies. While Mr. Obama would like to keep the economic conversation lofty, his adversaries in Congress are already fighting in the trenches.

On Tuesday, a House Appropriations subcommittee formally drafted legislation that would cut the Environmental Protection Agency's budget by 34 percent and eliminate his newly announced greenhouse gas regulations. The bill cuts in half financing for the national endowments for the arts and the humanities and reduces the Fish and Wildlife Service by 27 percent.

For the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, Mr. Obama requested nearly $3 billion for renewable energy and energy-efficiency programs -- a mainstay of the Obama economic agenda since he was first elected. The House approved $826 million. Senate Democrats want to give $380 million to ARPA-E, an advanced research program for energy; the House allocated $70 million.

A House bill to finance labor and health programs, expected to be unveiled today, makes good on GOP threats to eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The labor and health measure -- for years, the most contentious spending bill -- will protect some White House priorities, such as Head Start, special education and the National Institutes of Health. But to do so, education grants for poor students will be cut by 16 percent, and the Labor Department by 13 percent, according to House Republican aides.

"These are tough bills," said House Appropriations Committee chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky. "His priorities are going nowhere."

The Democrat-controlled Senate will not go along with the House cuts, but the different approaches will complicate negotiations. With just 24 legislative days remaining before Oct. 1, talks to resolve the disparities have not really begun, lawmakers said, putting Congress and the president on a collision course that could shut down the government after this fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

"This is as serious a challenge on fiscal matters as I've ever seen," said Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the No. 2 House Democrat and a veteran of more than three decades in Congress.

In the Senate, Republicans are circulating a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., warning that they will not approve any spending measure to keep the government operating after Sept. 30 if it devotes a penny to put in place Mr. Obama's health care law. Signers so far include the No. 2 and No. 3 GOP senators, Texas' John Cornyn and South Dakota's John Thune, as well as one of the party's rising stars, Florida's Marco Rubio.

The letter -- drafted by Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky -- states: "If Democrats will not agree with Republicans that Obamacare must be repealed, perhaps they can at least agree with the president that the law cannot be implemented as written. If the administration will not enforce the law as written, then the American people should not be forced to fund it."

Taken together, efforts in both chambers amount to some of the most serious cuts to domestic spending since the Republicans in 1995 tried to shutter the departments of Energy, Education and Commerce -- and ended up shutting down the government for 28 days.

At the White House, senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Republicans were offering no plan "other than indiscriminate cuts as far as the eye can see and repeal Obamacare as often as possible. We need them to step away from the brink, stop the gridlock and work with Democrats to make progress," he said. "If they don't, a train wreck is inevitable, and the country will suffer."

To resolve the brewing fiscal crisis, the House and Senate must first agree on a total spending number for the next fiscal year, then adjust their respective spending plans to comply with it.

Republicans would have to drop their insistence that fiscal 2014 spending be set at a level equal to the total fixed by the 2011 Budget Control Act, then cut further by the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, an action Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday he will not do.

Democrats will almost certainly have to come down from spending levels set in bills the Senate is drafting.

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