WASHINGTON – A powerful Senate panel moved to freeze the Pentagon's budget on Wednesday, while House Republicans signaled that they will scale back cuts to domestic programs like housing subsidies as Congress sets to work on implementing last month's budget deal.
At the same time, a top House GOP leader explicitly endorsed a new framework for disaster aid agreed to in the same bipartisan budget pact that would permit billions of dollars to be added to the budget for victims of Hurricane Irene and disasters dating back to Hurricane Katrina.
All of the steps involve writing the details of the day-to-day budgets for Cabinet agencies for the budget year beginning Oct. 1. The work by the House and Senate appropriations committees is separate from a congressional supercommittee charged with finding $1.2 trillion of more in deficit cuts over the coming decade. The supercommittee officially begins work Thursday.
The move on defense spending by the Democratic-led Senate Appropriations Committee would freeze the amount of money available for an upcoming measure at $513 billion, the same amount provided in an April budget law. The actual details won't be released until the Pentagon funding measure is voted on later, but the move is sure to rile defense hawks in the House.
"We've already cut our capacity, our desire, our ability to do things. We've downsized and cut back and cut back," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif. No GOP senators complained, however.
The welter of activity comes as Congress returns from an August recess to confront a lengthy roster of unfinished business, including legislation to set the annual operating budgets of every Cabinet agency.
Last month's budget pact has brought a measure of peace to the appropriations process for 2012, which was the subject of a highly contentious battle earlier this year, when the tea party-driven House and President Barack Obama clashed for weeks before agreeing on agency budgets for the current budget year.
The budget pact requires a relatively small, $7 billion cut to the total amount of money available for agency budgets and requires that they be spread relatively equally between "security" and "nonsecurity" accounts. That budget cap was attached to last month's measure increasing the debt limit and establishing the budget supercommittee.
According to a recent report by the White House budget office, House Republicans need to strip $10 billion from previously approved bills funding security programs in order to comply with the budget pact. Such programs include defense, veterans' programs and foreign aid, among others.
On Wednesday, the Senate panel gave overwhelming approval, 29-1, to three spending bills covering agriculture, homeland security, and energy and water programs. At the same time, the House Appropriations Committee unveiled a $55 billion transportation and housing measure that freezes such programs at current levels. Before the budget pact, panel Republicans had planned a $7.7 billion, 14 percent cut to the measure.
The $41 billion homeland security measure comes in slightly percent below current levels and includes $6 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund, $4.2 billion of which is on top of the overall agency spending cap of $1.043 trillion set last month. The budget pact allowed for the move to provide more stability in disaster funding.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., endorsed the idea, if not the specific amount of disaster aid, in a softening of the stance he appeared to take last month, when he said that disaster aid "will be offset with appropriate savings or cost-cutting elsewhere" in the budget.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., meanwhile, announced plans to advance the disaster package separately and seek a quick vote on it, as FEMA's disaster account is running dangerously low and may run dry before the budget year ends on Sept. 30. Cantor said the House would quickly vote on a looming disaster aid request from the White House.
The panel also approved $1 billion in Army Corps of Engineers disaster assistance to deal with massive flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. That was attached to the $32 billion energy and water measure.
The $20 billion agriculture bill would restore House cuts to the Food and Drug Administration and food aid for low-income pregnant women and their children and ease House cuts to international food aid programs.
On Thursday, the House Appropriations panel will release a measure funding labor, education and health programs. Republicans are expected to restore previously planned cuts in the measure.