House Republicans move to slash domestic programs

Republicans controlling the House promised Thursday to slash domestic agencies' spending by almost 20 percent in their drive to bring it back to levels in place before President Barack Obama took office.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan announced the move as the first salvo in a battle with Obama as they seek to keep a campaign promise to cut $100 billion from domestic programs.

The cuts would bring huge changes to agencies used to budget boosts during Obama's first two years in office. The White House has vowed to fight Republicans, saying their plans could lead to widespread furloughs of federal employees and force vulnerable people off of subsidized housing, reduce services in national parks and slash aid to schools and local police and fire departments.

"Washington's spending spree is over," Ryan, R-Wis., said. "The spending limits will restore sanity to a broken budget process and return spending for domestic government agencies to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels."

Republicans made a campaign promise to cut $100 billion from Obama's request for domestic agencies like the Department of Education, for the budget year that began in October. But since the year is under way, they're so far falling short, just $58 billion under the plan released Thursday. They promise to try to fully impose the dramatic cuts during what is sure to be a contentious budget debate this year.

The GOP promise was to reduce spending for domestic agencies whose budgets are set by Congress each year back to levels in place under the last budget approved by former President George W. Bush.

Under the original pledge, the Pentagon could have been awarded Obama's proposed 4 percent, $23 billion increase. Instead, the military budget will grow by significantly less when the Appropriations Committee unveils its proposed budget cap later Thursday.

The $100 billion savings figure is measured against Obama's budget request, but the actual savings would be less since Obama's budget boosts were never approved and the government is operating at 2010 levels. Instead, the savings from domestic programs in making the switch from 2010 to 2008 would be about $86 billion, imposing cuts of 19 percent on average.

And the savings from domestic programs in the year ending Sept. 30 would be even less since Obama's budget boosts were never approved and the government is operating at 2010 levels. Republicans acknowledge they can achieve, at best, $32 billion in saving by the Sept. 30 end of the year once small increases for the security agencies — the Pentagon and the departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs — are factored in.

A stopgap spending bill passed in December expires March 4. Enacting a full-year funding bill promises to be a difficult test of the new balance of power in Washington. Republicans control only the House, but Democrats acknowledge that — with the deficit on pace to hit $1.5 trillion this year — some spending cuts will have to be made.

"We're not burying our heads on the sand. We recognize that we have to do something," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Obama's most powerful ally on Capitol Hill.

Republicans say some agencies like the FBI, the Indian Health Service and NASA are unlikely to be cut all the way back to pre-Obama levels. But that means other agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency, would have to bear even bigger cuts.

Returning to 2008 levels would produce dramatic cuts for many agencies: a 41 percent cut for EPA clean water grants; an 8 percent cut to NASA, a 16 percent cut for the FBI and a 13 percent cut in the operating budget of the national parks.

The hard-charging GOP freshman class — especially newcomers from Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York and New Hampshire — may have some second thoughts when confronted with big cuts looming to the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, which provides home heating subsidies to the poor.

Republicans in Texas, Florida and Alabama — where NASA facilities mean thousands of jobs — are sure to fight against cuts to the space agency. NASA could have to abandon the International Space Station because of the cuts, the White House warns.

Lawmakers in both parties from rural districts are likely to resist what could be an almost 20 percent cut to a program that subsidizes service by smaller airlines to isolated cities and towns like Scottsbluff, Neb., and Burlington, Iowa. Smaller subsidies or tighter rules would probably mean some communities would lose service.

As local school districts cope with budget squeezes, they won't be able to count on the same amount of help from the federal government. Special education grants to states could be cut by $1.4 billion, or 11 percent, forcing hometown school boards to cut services or make up the difference with local funds.