House, Senate on diverging paths on agency budgets

AP News
Posted: Jun 18, 2013 4:58 PM
House, Senate on diverging paths on agency budgets

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans controlling the House unveiled slashing cuts Tuesday to a program that helps localities build community development projects, while their rivals in the Democratic-led Senate proposed to restore GOP cuts to international food aid and nutrition help for pregnant women.

An Energy Department spending bill that would cut President Barack Obama's requests for renewable energy programs, meanwhile, began its advance through the House Appropriations Committee as the battling chambers continued to proceed down wildly divergent budget tracks.

Senate Democrats were pressing to restore deep cuts to domestic programs like education, housing, health research and a variety of other programs despite agency budget "caps" more than $90 billion below the $967 billion level set under current law.

At issue was Congress' nuts and bolts budget work — the annual spending bills funding day-to-day agency operations — but it was taking on the appearance of a slow-motion train wreck with the most likely result being even larger across-the-board cuts than were imposed earlier this year.

As long as Obama and congressional Republicans remain stalemated over the big-picture budget issues of taxes and curbing benefit programs like Medicare and food stamps, federal agencies remain stuck with deep, across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration. The calendar is working against reversing sequestration for the current budget year expiring on Sept. 30 and hope is fading for a budget deal that would stave off even deeper cuts this fall.

The current situation has evolved from the failure of Obama and Congress to follow up the hard-fought 2011 budget and debt deal, which created sequestration as a $1.2 trillion backstop if Congress and Obama failed to deliver alternative deficit cuts to replace it. Originally designed to be so punishing as to force the sides to an agreement, sequestration now has become a grim reality, squeezing the Pentagon by about 8 percent and cutting domestic agencies by about 5 percent.

"I would anticipate that we probably see the sequester happen a second time," Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said.

Unless Congress acts, sequestration will cap agency operating budgets at $967 billion next year, though so-called emergencies like overseas military operations and most disaster aid would add to that. House Republicans are sticking with the caps but cutting domestic programs even more deeply in order to channel resources to the Pentagon.

The result is measures like the $44 billion transportation and housing bill released Tuesday by the House Appropriations Committee. The bill cuts the popular community development grant program, which funds projects like sidewalks, playgrounds and low-income housing rehabilitation, by $1.3 billion, to just $1.6 billion, the lowest level since the Ford administration in the 1970s.

The measure also cuts funding for so-called Section 8 housing vouchers, which is likely to mean that people won't be added to the program off of waiting lists that already can span many years. It eliminates funding for the Choice Neighborhoods program that seeks to revive struggling urban areas with public housing projects.

"This bill is an example of the current budgetary trade-offs facing our nation — the need to make deep cuts to meet our fiscal constraints and address the deficit, while maintaining funding for important government programs and services" like housing, transportation infrastructure and air traffic control, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., said. The bill would avoid layoffs or furloughs of air traffic controllers, Rogers said, and would make sure that everyone receiving a subsidized housing voucher will continue to receive one.

The measure would eliminate funding for high-speed rail projects and cut back capital projects for Amtrak from $952 million to $600 million.

It was a different picture in the Senate, where two subcommittees approved bipartisan bills funding the departments of Agriculture and the Veterans Affairs. The Senate's $21 billion agriculture measure is $1.4 billion more generous than the House measure, which allowed Appropriations agriculture subcommittee Chairman Mark Pryor, D-Ark., to restore House GOP cuts to the widely-backed Food for Peace program delivering U.S. food aid overseas. The panel also restored House cuts to the Women, Infants and Children program that feeds low-income mothers and their babies.

But some Republicans opposed the legislation because the panel drafted the bills at levels that ignore the current budget sequestration vise.

"It is the law and whether we like it or not I think we need to honor that," said Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind. "But these appropriations bills in the whole ... ignore the sequester."