The GOP-controlled House Thursday passed legislation to replace a looming 10 percent cut to the military budget with cuts to domestic programs like food stamps and health care.
The partisan 218-199 vote sends the measure to the Senate, where it's a dead letter with Democratic leaders, who insist on keeping the automatic cuts in place until Republicans agree to a mixture of tax increases and spending cuts to address the nation's deficit woes.
The automatic spending cuts, totaling $110 billion next year, are punishment for the failure of last year's deficit-reduction "supercommittee" to strike a deal. Lawmakers in both parties want to avoid the automatic cuts, but Democrats are strongly opposed to the GOP approach, which slices more than $300 billion from domestic programs over the coming decade to prevent the Pentagon from absorbing a $55 billion blow to its budget next year and also hits domestic agencies with an 8 percent cut to their day-to-day operating budgets.
Defense hawks warn the Pentagon cuts would mean reduced troop levels, military base closings and a significantly smaller Navy and Air Force.
The replacement cuts include blocking illegal immigrants from claiming refundable child tax credits and cutting almost 2 million people off of food stamps.
"Today we are having a debate over whether to eliminate wasteful, duplicative spending and unnecessary, flawed federal programs" or to let automatic cuts "disarm our military, disrupt their operational capabilities, and shrink America's fighting force," said Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga. "Do we really want to have the men and women of our military pay the price for Washington's fiscal irresponsibility?"
The automatic cuts would strike domestic benefit programs as well, including a 2 percentage point cut from Medicare payments to health care providers and a $16 billion cut in farm subsidies over a decade. The GOP measure would leave those cuts in place.
The butter-for-guns swap faces a veto threat from the White House and rejection by Democrats who control the Senate, who argue the GOP measure unfairly hits the middle class and the poor. Democrats are making it plain they expect any effort to turn off automatic spending cuts to include additional taxes on the wealthy and corporations. The resulting deadlock is highly unlikely to be resolved before Election Day.
The measure includes changes to the food stamp program through tighter enforcement of eligibility rules and would cut back a 2009 benefit increase, costing a family of four $57 a month. Federal workers would have to contribute 5 percent more of their pay toward pension plans that are more generous than most private sector workers receive.
Fully 25 percent of the cuts come from programs that benefit the poor, while cuts to President Barack Obama's health care plan also affect those with modest incomes, prevention funding, and efforts by states to set up insurance exchanges. A cut to the Social Services Block Grants, which Republicans say duplicates other programs, would hit programs like Meals on Wheels for the elderly, child care and child abuse prevention. Another provision opposed by most Democrats would deny illegal immigrants tax refunds from the $1,000-per-child tax credit -- even though most of the children in question are U.S. citizens.
"They are protecting the massive Pentagon budget with all its waste ... and finding even deeper cuts in programs that benefit the people of this country," said liberal Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. "This bill before us would create a government where there is no conscience; where the wealthy and well-connected are protected and enriched -- and the middle class, the poor, and the vulnerable are essentially forgotten."
But Republicans noted that much of the food stamp savings came from tightening eligibility loopholes and that the savings equal just 4 percent of the program's budget. Democrats noted that the cuts would also take away free school lunches for 280,000 children.
The measure would take away the government's authority to liquidate "too big to fail" financial institutions to avoid a Wall St. crisis, block states from trimming their Medicaid rolls, and eliminate a new program to help homeowners who are "underwater" on their mortgages with loan modifications.
"The bill relies entirely on spending cuts that impose a particular burden on the middle class and the most vulnerable among us, while doing nothing to raise revenue from the most affluent," a White House statement said.
But Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., warned that leaving the automatic cuts in place would mean a smaller Navy and Air Force, a new set of military base closings, and a 200,000 troop cut.
"It's not shooting ourselves in our foot," McKeon said. "It's shooting ourselves in the head."
The Congressional Budget Office issued a new analysis on the GOP measure as well, declaring the measure would cut the deficit by as much as $238 billion over the coming decade. But deficits for next year would actually increase by about $28 billion, depending on when the measure could be enacted.