WASHINGTON – The White House weighed in sharply Wednesday against a House GOP move to break last summer's budget pact by cutting the annual budgets for nondefense programs funded through annual appropriations bills.
Republicans are cutting such programs $28 billion below levels agreed to last summer in the bipartisan budget and debt deal, prompting acting White House budget chief Jeffrey Zients to warn lawmakers in a letter that President Barack Obama will not sign any appropriations bills until GOP leaders promise to abide by last summer's budget pact.
The budget deal last summer set caps for the annual spending bills but House Republicans rewrote them when passing a new budget last month. That set the stage for the annual appropriations process to get under way this week, but a situation is emerging in which House bills funding Obama priorities like education and transportation are likely to bear a disproportionate share of the new cuts.
Few if any of the 12 annual appropriations bills are likely to get to Obama's desk before Election Day, but Congress will have to pass stopgap funding to avert a government shutdown when the new budget year begins Oct. 1.
The battle over the annual spending bills comes as House Republicans are moving on a separate track to target food stamps, federal employee pensions, tax breaks for illegal immigrants and subsidies under Obama's health care law in a multifaceted drive to swap cuts to domestic programs for big Pentagon cuts scheduled next year.
Those cuts are mostly familiar, though a plan to cut food stamps goes well beyond a bipartisan proposal drafted last year. The Democratic-controlled Senate has no plans for companion legislation.
A measure approved Wednesday by the Agriculture panel would reduce the food stamp monthly benefit for a family of four by almost $60, repealing increases that were enacted three years ago as part of Obama's economic stimulus. The changes would also force up to 3 million people out of the program by tightening eligibility rules, the administration estimates.
The food stamp cuts would total $8 billion over the coming year and $34 billion over a decade. The program has been expanded greatly over the past few years — enrollment tops 46 million nationwide, up from about 33 million in 2009 — and now costs about $80 billion a year. The average monthly benefit for a family of four is about $500, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal research and advocacy group.
Democrats assailed the cuts, saying Republicans were targeting the poor while boosting the Pentagon budget above levels agreed to last summer.
"We'd rather pay farmers millions of dollars not to grow crops than to feed children," said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Wis., blasting an Agriculture panel proposal that cuts food stamps but leaves alone controversial farm subsidies.
But panel chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., countered that Democrats had targeted the programs for savings as well in 2010 to pay for other legislation and that many states game the system to increase eligibility and maximize payments. The cuts would reduce projected costs by 4 percent.
"We're closing loopholes, reducing waste and abuse, and increasing the integrity of the program by insuring (food stamps) serves only those households who qualify for the program," Lucas said.
Several other committees are meeting Wednesday to vote on other cuts, which would be bundled together for a vote by the entire House next month as a follow-up to the more sweeping GOP budget plan approved last month.
That measure is nonbinding but instructed six House committees to come up with spending reductions as an alternative to across-the-board cuts scheduled to slam both the Pentagon and domestic agencies in January. Those cuts were required after the budget "supercommittee" failed to agree on a deficit-reduction plan last year.
Driving the GOP effort is a desire to avert a $55 billion cut — about 10 percent — to the Pentagon budget and a $43 billion cut to domestic agencies starting Jan. 1. There's bipartisan opposition to this so-called sequester, but it's not at all clear what part the cuts proposed by Republicans will play in any ultimate solution. Most budget observers believe any solution to the sequester, as well as what to do about the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts at the same time, will be postponed until after the November election.
The cuts include a plan to deny illegal immigrants refundable tax credits of up to $1,000 per child that they are presently able to claim despite being in the country illegally. Another measure would increase the amount of health insurance subsidies under the new health care law that people must pay back if their incomes go up.
Several of the GOP proposals have won condemnation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, including the food stamp cuts and the effort to deny the refundable child tax credit to immigrant children, many of whom are U.S. citizens.
"To deny the (child tax) credit to children of working poor immigrant families — the large majority of whom are American citizens — would hurt vulnerable kids, increase poverty, and would not advance the common good," wrote Bishop Stephen E. Blaire, of Stockton, Calif.
The Financial Services panel voted to again repeal several elements of the 2010 overhaul of financial regulations, including what the GOP dubs a "bailout fund" that was established for the liquidation of future failed banks. And a controversial regulatory panel would have to compete with other domestic agencies for its budget, rather than be funded automatically.
The Judiciary Committee is debating a plan to cap punitive damages in medical malpractice lawsuits at $250,000, which budget scorekeepers say could produce savings exceeding $50 billion over the coming decade, largely by slowing inflation in health care.
Across the Capitol, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee convened a debate on a plan by Obama's 2010 deficit commission. But Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., didn't permit a vote on the measure, which lacks enough support to make it through the panel, much less survive on the floor. Republicans condemned Conrad's move, saying he had broken a promise made last summer to present a budget and hold a vote. Conrad appeared to bow to pressure from Democratic leaders to protect party colleagues from politically difficult votes.