WASHINGTON – Moving to protect the military from a crippling wave of budget cuts next year, a key House committee voted Monday to cut instead food aid, health care and social services like Meals on Wheels.
The measure would require federal employees to contribute more to their pensions, saving taxpayers more than $80 billion over the coming decade, while illegal immigrants would be denied tax refunds from the $1,000 per-child tax credit. There's no companion legislation moving in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and the proposal doesn't stand a chance of making it to President Barack Obama's desk for signature.
But the vote was a symbolic swipe at Obama in an election year focused on the economy.
The cuts approved by the Republican-controlled Budget Committee total more than $300 billion over the coming decade. The panel approved them on a party-line 21-9 vote; the full House is scheduled to vote on the measure on Thursday.
The proposed reductions in the bill are but a fraction of those called for in the broader, nonbinding budget plan that passed the House in March. They are aimed less at taming trillion dollar-plus deficits than preventing the Pentagon from absorbing a 10 percent, $55 billion automatic budget cut in January because last year's deficit "supercommittee" couldn't reach a deal.
The Obama administration and lawmakers in both parties warn the defense cuts would harm readiness and weapons procurement, and reduce troop levels.
One-fourth of the House GOP spending cuts come from programs directly benefiting the poor, such as Medicaid, food stamps, the Social Services Block Grant, and a child tax credit claimed by working immigrants.
Federal workers would have to contribute an additional 5 percent of their salaries toward their pensions, while people whose incomes rise after receiving coverage subsidies under the new health care law would lose some or all of their benefits.
The automatic spending cuts, known as a "sequester," 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 to farm subsidies. The GOP measure would leave those cuts in place.
The sequester required by the supercommittee's failure would abruptly wring about $110 billion in new spending from next year's budget. But the upcoming GOP measure is more gentle in the near term, cutting deficits this year and next by less than $20 billion — though the cuts add up to more than $300 billion over the coming decade.
"The question is whether or not to just let the sequester occur ... or whether to be more targeted, reasonable and responsible," said Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga. "The last thing we want is those kinds of reductions in defense spending."
Some of the cuts may or not be realistic, though, despite the seal of approval of the respected Congressional Budget Office. Particularly dubious is $22.5 billion in savings claimed by repealing new "orderly liquidation" authority awarded to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to prevent the failure of large financial firms from endangering the economy. Costs would be offset by assessments on other institutions over subsequent years.
The cuts are likely just a sample of what's in store next year from Republicans if Mitt Romney wins the White House and the GOP takes back the Senate. Romney promises much tougher cuts to domestic programs and an even bigger boost in the Pentagon's budget, while the House GOP budget promises sharp cuts to Medicaid and a dramatic overhaul of Medicare for future beneficiaries.
To GOP lawmakers, steps like blocking states from gaming food stamp eligibility rules to boost benefits or trying to stop illegal immigrants from claiming tax refunds of up to $1,000 per child are simply no-brainers. For instance, the GOP measure would more strictly enforce a requirement that most food stamp beneficiaries have assets of $2,000 or less.
"We propose to stop fraud in the food-stamp program by ensuring that individuals are actually eligible for the taxpayer benefits they receive," said Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. "That shouldn't be a partisan issue. That ought to be a common sense issue."
But Democrats say Republicans are unfairly targeting the poor and vulnerable. They believe that legislation to prevent the Pentagon cuts should include tax increases that strike wealthier people.
Top Budget panel Democrat Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said the food aid cuts would mean 280,000 children would lose free school lunches and 1.8 million people — out of 46 million currently covered — would lose food stamp benefits while large agricultural businesses would continue to receive lucrative subsidies. The GOP plan would carve 4 percent from projected food stamp spending over the coming decade, including repeal of a 2009 benefits boost under Obama's economic stimulus measure that currently awards an additional $57 a month to a family of four.
"This plan hits the food and nutrition programs but totally exempts all the agricultural subsidies," Van Hollen said.
The proposed GOP cuts pale in comparison to the $5 trillion in cuts called for over the coming decade by the broader — but nonbinding — GOP budget blueprint.
Stepping into the debate, however, has been the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who forcefully oppose cuts to programs that help the poor and vulnerable, singling out cuts to food stamps as "unjustified and wrong" and assailing the effort to deny the child tax credit to undocumented workers as sure to thrust vulnerable children into poverty. The vast majority of children who would be affected by the tax credit proposal are U.S. citizens.
Republicans would also eliminate Social Services Block Grants, a $1.7 billion a year program that gives states money for Meals on Wheels, day care, adoption assistance, and transportation help for the elderly and disabled. Democrats noted that the program comes in the form of flexible block grants, an approach that Republicans advocated in the Ryan budget regarding Medicaid and food stamps. Republicans say the Social Service Block Grants program duplicates other efforts.
"Taxpayers deserve better than to see their money wasted on duplicative federal programs that never end," Ryan said.
Separately, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee on Monday unveiled his version of next year's defense budget, a blueprint that reverses several of the proposals embraced by Obama and military leaders.
The overall bill for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 totals $642 billion — a base budget of $554 billion plus $88 billion for the war in Afghanistan and the counterterrorism fight. House Republicans boosted spending on defense by $3.7 billion above Obama's military budget proposal, which had already boosted such spending by $4.6 billion above levels called for in last summer's budget and debt pact.