The Senate as early as today plans head-to-head votes on House and Senate spending bills that are more than $50 billion apart on the scale of budget cuts for the balance of the fiscal year -- and even further apart on the rational for the cuts.
The House bill, passed on Feb. 19 without a single Democratic vote, proposes a historic $61.5 billion in cuts – bringing federal discretionary spending back to pre-stimulus FY 2008 levels. The Senate measure, released on Friday, calls for $6.5 billion in cuts – a level that Senate Democratic leaders say is about as far as the Senate can go.
Citing the $1.65 trillion deficit projected this year, Republicans say that $6 billion barely makes a dent in the scope of the nation’s fiscal woes. “Washington will add more to the debt this week than they want to cut for the entire year – and that’s the farthest their leaders say they’re willing to go,” said Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, in remarks on the floor on Tuesday. “Anything more, they say, is Draconian. I’ll tell you what’s Draconian: Draconian is what happens if Democrats don’t get real about our nation’s fiscal crisis.”
In sharp contrast, Democrats say that too-deep cuts risk derailing the nation’s economic recovery and jeopardizing critical investments for the future. Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada called the GOP plan reckless and irresponsible. “Do we want a government that is too limited to have invented the Internet?” said Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts.
“Getting our fiscal house in order can’t just be something we use as cover to do away with things we dislike politically,” said President Obama in his weekly address on Saturday. “And it can’t just be about how much we cut. It’s got to be about how we cut and how we invest.”
“We’ve got to be smart about it. Because if we cut back on the kids I’ve met here and their education, for example, we’d be risking the future of an entire generation of Americans. And there’s nothing responsible about that,” he added.
Since Congress failed to pass a budget or spending bills for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, government has been funded with stop-gap measures. The first, funded through March 4, froze government spending at 2010 levels. The second, funded through March 18, cut $4 billion in discredited congressional earmarks or programs that the White House or Congress had already agreed to phase out. Now, Congress takes up the tough cuts, many involving popular programs with strong lobbies to defend them.
A key flashpoint is spending on education. After supporting a spike in education spending during the Bush years, many House Republicans are questioning whether the investment was worth it. “The federal role in education is a history of underperformance, hype, and false promises,” said Rep. Peter Roscam (R) of Illinois, the chief deputy whip, at a press briefing on Feb. 28. The Senate measure proposes spending $11 billion more than the House for education programs over the next six months.
Education programs already took a hit in the first stop-gap spending measure, which made deep cuts in federal literacy programs. With teachers' unions a key element of the Democratic Party base, Senate Democrats are gearing up to fight for many of these programs.
Most notably, the House proposes a $700 million cut in Title I grants to school districts serving low-income families, where Democrats would increase Title I funding by $100 million. Senate Democrats also propose spending $1.4 billion more than the House on Head Start – an early education program also targeting low-income families. The House cut the maximum annual Pell Grant to $4,705, but Senate Democrats want to maintain it at $5,550.
Both the House and Senate cut President Obama’s signature Race to the Top grants, which gave the Secretary of Education a $4 billion fund to use at his discretion to encourage educational innovation. The Education Department says that this program has done more in the last 18 months to advance education reform than any program in the history of the Education Department. The House zeroed out funding for the program and the Senate proposes cutting it to $450,000 for the balance of the fiscal year, down from the $1.4 billion that President Obama had requested.
In addition to spending cuts, the House bill includes more than 130 policy riders that direct the federal government explicitly to cease activities that the majority opposes. The most prominent is a ban to block any Department or agency from implementing health care reform. A score of environmental riders cover issues ranging from banning greenhouse gas regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency to delisting wolves in the northern Rockies under the Endangered Species Act. Other riders end federal funding for Planned Parenthood, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and block the launch of a public product safety information database.
House Republicans agreed to leave policy riders out of the most recent stop-gap spending measure, in a bid to reach agreement before funding for government expired on March 4. Senate Democrats are pushing hard to again block the riders from spending bills for the balance of the fiscal year.
“Democrats and Republicans are being asked to vote on wildly different proposals for reining in spending. Both proposals will fail. Worse still, everyone in Congress knows that they will fail,” Senator Manchin said Tuesday. “The debate will be decided when the president leads these tough negotiations, and right now that’s not happening.”