House begins summer-long debate on spending bills

Republicans controlling the House are kicking off a combative summer-long debate over cutting spending with a homeland security spending bill that adds almost $2 billion to disaster aid accounts shortchanged by President Barack Obama.

The $42.3 billion homeland security measure has always been among the most popular and easier-to-pass of the 12 annual spending bills that fund the day-to-day budgets of federal agencies. It's being followed up Thursday with an even more popular measure awarding funding boosts to veterans programs.

But far more stringent bills cutting health research, student aid, food aid for low income pregnant women and energy efficiency programs — among myriad programs facing the ax — are to follow as the summer slogs on. The cuts will fall most harshly on bills slated to advance after Labor Day that would funding health, education, housing subsidies, transportation and foreign aid, and there's widespread doubt that Republicans will be able to actually pass those bills without an infusion of additional cash.

The fights over domestic appropriations will run parallel to efforts to negotiate spending cuts in concert with politically toxic legislation to increase the $14.3 trillion limit on the government's ability to borrow. A cap on the appropriations spending passed by Congress each year is likely to be part of any agreement.

The homeland security measure on the floor Wednesday imposes an almost 3 percent cut in the Department of Homeland Security's budget, concentrating the cuts on state and local homeland security grants while holding harmless front line programs like border security, the Coast Guard and airport screening.

"We know already that Bin Laden was intending to attack mass transit and shipping and yet the bill cuts 50 percent of transit security, 50 percent of port security and basically it's cutting by 50 percent the money that's going to the most targeted cities in the country," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. King opposes the legislation as a result.

The cuts to first responder grants helped Republicans direct an additional $1.9 billion to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief accounts, which were already facing a $3 billion or so shortfall before the recent wave of tornadoes in Missouri and Alabama and flooding along the Mississippi River.

The fight over agency spending levels for the budget year beginning Oct. 1 is in many ways a replay of many of the battles from earlier this year as Republicans and Obama negotiated a measure for the ongoing 2011 year that carved almost $40 billion from prior year levels.

The current round of bills would carve another $30 billion from the $1 trillion-plus allotted for the spending bills passed by Congress each year. Cuts to domestic programs like education, housing subsidies and infrastructure projects will feel much more severe because the Pentagon — which accounts for more than half of the budget that passes through the Appropriations panel each year — would actually receive a $17 billion, 3 percent boost. Domestic agencies and foreign aid accounts would have to absorb $47 billion in cuts, averaging about 9 percent.

Like the earlier legislation, Republicans are going for the biggest cuts they can, knowing that negotiations with Obama will force compromises. But the new wave of cuts is a tighter clampdown and it is hitting programs that were largely spared in the earlier legislation.

For instance, a $17.3 billion agriculture appropriations approved by the Appropriations panel on Tuesday would impose a $685 million cut — about 10 percent — from this year's budget for the federal nutrition program that provides food for low-income mothers and children. The cuts had been even deeper until Democrats succeeded in restoring $147 million during Tuesday's panel session.

And on Wednesday, the Appropriations panel unveiled a $30.6 billion measure funding the Energy Department and Army Corps of Engineers water projects that makes slashing cuts to energy efficiency and renewable energy programs.

The House is expected to wrap up the homeland security measure on Thursday.