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Appalled by sequester cuts, House begins efforts to avoid them

The House on Thursday passed a measure that would spare the Pentagon from looming cuts by making deeper cuts to social programs. But Congress isn't expected to get serious about altering the debt deal's $109 billion sequester until after the November election. 

By Staff writer / May 10, 2012

Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin (r.) speaks to reporters following a weekly House GOP strategy session at the Capitol in Washington Tuesday.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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On a party-line vote, the House passed a plan Thursday aimed at saving the Defense Department from the automatic cuts mandated by last year's debt-ceiling deal by instead making cuts to social services and President Obama's health-care law, as well as raising pension contributions from federal workers.

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The legislation, which passed 218 to 199 with no Democratic votes, is an attempt to alter the sequester – the debt deal's across-the-board cuts to the Pentagon and to social services, which are set to take effect Jan. 2, 2013, because Congress failed to come up with an alternative. 

The measure is certain to die in the Democrat-held Senate, and it has its critics on both sides of the aisle in the House, too – though for vastly different reasons. 

To the left, it is an all-out assault on the poor and the elderly. “It asks for more of those who have less and less from those who have more,” said House minority whip Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland on the House floor. 

Some Republicans, meanwhile, say the bill is merely election-year political cover. It allows House Republicans who voted for the debt-ceiling increase to say that they voted for a measure that would have offset that increase – while at the same time preserving precious Pentagon funding. 

“This is a smokescreen to protect people who voted to raise the debt ceiling,” said Rep. Jeff Landry (R) of Louisiana on Wednesday. “Listen, I like the cuts. Why couldn’t we have had those cuts last year?”

To supporters, however, the legislation stands as an opening bid from Republicans when sequester negotiations heat up in earnest after the November elections. Moreover, it highlights a key GOP talking point: While the Senate has gone nearly three years without proposing a budget, House Republicans have been unafraid to make tough fiscal decisions. 

"We believe the purpose of the sequester was to replace the fact that Congress isn't governing," House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin said as debate began on the bill Thursday. "Well, let's have Congress govern.”

The Ryan legislation handles the sequester by spreading out much of next year's budget hit over a decade. In all, the sequester would lop $900 billion from the federal budget during the next decade, starting with $109 billion next year. That $109 billion would come from $55 billion in cuts to Medicare ($12 billion) and non-defense discretionary spending ($43 billion) on one hand and $55 billion in Pentagon cuts on the other. 

Congressman Ryan's plan allows the $12 billion in Medicare cuts to continue and adds $18 billion in new spending cuts. It also lowers the overall budget by $19 billion. But that total is $60 billion short of the $109 billion called for by the sequester. Ryan's plan pays that balance over the next decade though a variety of spending reductions headlined by cuts to health care and the increased federal pension contributions.

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