WASHINGTON – Conservatives won a bid to slice arts funding Thursday, while a GOP moderate lost an attempt to ease cuts to heating subsidies for the poor as the House began a third day of debate on a sweeping spending bill cleaning up last year's budget mess.
The votes were the first in an anticipated long day as House leaders pressed to wrap up a $1.2 trillion spending bill to fund the Pentagon and the operating budgets of every Cabinet agency and to provide $158 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. House action is just the first step in a battle that will involve the Democratic-controlled Senate and President Barack Obama, who's threatened to use his veto if the measure cuts too deeply.
With the House still at work on an initial package of $61 billion in cuts, Speaker John Boehner said the Republican majority would next turn its attention to "wasteful mandatory spending."
Mandatory programs generally refer to benefit programs such as food stamps, farm subsidies, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Thursday's House budget-cutting votes indicate some willingness to embrace even more stringent spending cuts than already proposed by Republicans to reach across hundreds of domestic accounts — reflecting an influx of tea party-backed conservatives and a GOP fervor to slash away at the budget.
A proposal by Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., to further cut the National Endowment for the Arts by $21 million squeaked through on a 217-209 vote. An attempt by Rep. Charles Bass, R-N.H., to restore $50 million of a $390 million cut to a program offering heating subsidies for the poor failed by a 322-104 vote, which was so lopsided because Bass sought cuts in drug abuse and mental health money to pay for it.
And Republicans struck a blow to former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., by eliminating $15 million for the Presidio Trust, which manages a former San Francisco Army base that is now an urban park.
But Republicans were uneasy at $558 million in proposed cuts to special education and restored the money by a 249-179 vote. A proposed $447 million cut to Amtrak's budget was swatted away by a 250-176 vote.
The House had also sent mixed signals on Wednesday. Members voted to cancel $450 million for a costly alternative engine for the Pentagon's next-generation F-35 warplane but then approved amendments by Democrats to ease cuts to economic development grants and popular grant programs for local fire departments and for hiring police officers.
The showdown 233-198 vote on the engine was a win for Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates and was fueled by the votes of many GOP conservatives who opposed the costly program, including 47 Republican freshmen elected last fall on promises to cut the budget.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other House GOP leaders backed the funding for the alternative engine for the F-35 — as does the Democratic-controlled Senate — so it still has a big chance as the sprawling measure makes its way through the Senate and on to Obama.
Thursday promises to be especially freewheeling, with dozens of votes possible on amendments, including those restoring family planning funds, boosting health research and reversing cuts to community health centers.
The underlying bill would make cuts totaling more than $60 billion from the agency budgets Congress passes each year. Nearly all of the reductions are aimed at domestic programs and foreign aid, including aid for schools, nutrition programs, environmental protection, and heating and housing subsidies for the poor.
Democrats overwhelmingly oppose the measure and Obama has threatened a veto if it reaches his desk, citing sweeping cuts that he says would endanger the economic recovery.
House passage is expected by week's end, but the Senate won't turn to it until after returning from next week's recess, just days before the expiration of a March 4 deadline.
Some Republicans want to go further, blocking implementation of Obama's signature health care overhaul and stopping the Federal Communications Commission from enforcing its proposed new "net neutrality" policy. That policy would prohibit telephone and cable TV companies from interfering with traffic on their broadband networks.
Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., is pressing an amendment to cut off funds to more than 100 Planned Parenthood clinics across the country.
On Wednesday, Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., gained support from GOP moderates to win a 228-203 vote to restore $298 million for police hiring grants. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, won a vote to restore $80 million for economic development grants. And more than half of House Republicans supported a move by Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., to restore $510 million in grants to help fire departments train and equip firefighters.
On the other side, Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., succeeded in cutting money for the National Drug Intelligence Center, a facility that was built in southwestern Pennsylvania at the insistence of the area's late congressman, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa.
And Rep. Thomas Reed, R-N.Y., succeeded in winning a 228-203 vote to block a $10 million sewer project in Tijuana, Mexico, whose untreated waste flows into San Diego and its coastal beaches.
But a coalition of Democrats, GOP moderates and Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee combined to kill, 259-171, an amendment by tea party-backed freshman Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., to wipe out funding for the Legal Services Corporation, which provides legal help to the poor.