Congress OKs big budget cuts — bigger fights await

Posted April 14, 2011, at 9:08 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Congress sent President Barack Obama hard-fought legislation cutting a record $38 billion from federal spending on Thursday, bestowing bipartisan support on the first major compromise between the White House and newly empowered Republicans in Congress.

“Welcome to divided government,” said House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, Republican point man in tough negotiations with the president and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that produced a bill no one claimed to like in its entirety.

Leader of a rambunctious new majority, Boehner said the cuts in domestic programs were unprecedented. Yet he also called the measure a less-than-perfect first step in a long campaign against federal red ink, and dozens of rank-and-file conservatives voted against it.

The White House also looked ahead to a struggle now beginning over national spending priorities in an era of soaring deficits and a $14 trillion national debt.

“We all know there are tough challenges ahead, from growing our economy to reducing our deficit, but we must build on this bipartisan compromise to tackle these issues and meet the expectations of the American people,” said an administration statement.

The bipartisan votes belied a fierce struggle that preceded passage and only narrowly avoided a partial government shutdown a week ago.

The tally in the House was 260-167. Among the supporters were 60 of the 87 first-term Republicans, many of them elected with tea party support.

The Senate added its approval a short while later, 81-19, and most of the opponents were conservatives who wanted deeper cuts.

Even before the final votes, House Republicans pointed eagerly toward a vote Friday on their next move against mounting deficits, a comprehensive budget that claims cuts measured in the trillions, rather than billions, over the next decade. That vote is expected to be as partisan as the spending bill was not.

The measure approved Thursday will finance the government through the Sept. 30 end of the budget year, chopping $38 billion from current levels and $78 billion from the president’s request of more than a year ago.

Billions were saved by eliminating congressional earmarks, and billions more in funds from the Census Bureau, left over from the 2010 national head count, now finished.

The Environmental Protection Agency, one of the Republicans’ favorite targets, took a $1.6 billion cut. Spending for community health centers was reduced by $600 million, and the Community Development Block Grant program favored by mayors by $950 million more.

The bipartisan drive to cut federal spending reached into every corner of the government’s sprawl of domestic programs. Money to renovate the Commerce Department building in Washington was cut by $8 million. The Appalachian Regional Commission, a New Deal-era program, was nicked for another $8 million and the National Park Service by $127 million more.

While Republicans touted the cuts in the measure, Democratic supporters pointed to even deeper reductions or even outright program terminations that Republicans had been forced to give up in negotiations.

That list included a family planning program for lower-income families, federal support for National Public Radio and the funds needed to implement the health care law that Congress approved a year ago and Republicans have voted to repeal.

While Republicans were unable to muster a 218-vote majority for the spending cuts on their own, the huge freshman class broke heavily in favor, 60-27.

Normally vocal, GOP critics of the legislation did not speak during debate. “This is done. I’m prepared to move on to bigger issues,” said one of them, Rep. Bill Huizinga of Michigan.

While reaching across party lines, the legislation produced few if any enthusiastic supporters.

Referring to a late lawmaker known for his sense of humor, Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., told the House, “As Mo Udall once said, if you can find something everyone agrees on, you can count on it being wrong.”

Moran, a veteran Virginia Democrat, said the bill “does contain more good than bad.” That put him in the same category as Rep. Jeff Landry, a first-term Louisiana Republican who won office last fall with the support of tea party activists.

The bill does not cut enough, he said, but he added, “I came to Washington to cut spending.” He also cited a provision banning the District of Columbia from using its own money to pay for most abortions for lower-income women.

Liberals were unsparing in their criticism. “This bill is nothing more than a tea party checklist targeting programs that help the most vulnerable,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. She pointed to cuts in food programs for the poor, grants to local police departments and help for children of inmates. “It’s shameful, a moral disgrace.”

As expected, the Republican leadership swung behind the bill.

Democrats, consigned to the minority in last year’s elections, splintered. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the party’s leader, voted against the bill without speaking on the floor. The second in command, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, supported it, and in doing so, cited a need to compromise for the government to function.

The impetus for the cuts came from Republicans who took power in January, symbolized by the 87 first-termers.

Unhappy with the leadership’s first attempt at a bill, they rejected it. They then propelled a revised measure through the House in February, including $61 billion in reductions that would have cut deeply into education programs and other accounts that Obama vowed to protect.

By contrast, neither Obama nor most Democrats advocated any cuts through the remainder of the current fiscal year.

The earlier House bill included numerous other provisions unrelated to spending. Many were aimed at the Environmental Protection Agency, and would have blocked proposed rules to limit greenhouse gas, pollution into the Chesapeake Bay, mercury emissions from cement factories and more.

That bill also included a ban on federal funding for Planned Parenthood. That was a priority of lawmakers who object to the organization as the country’s largest abortion provider, although federal law already bans the use of federal funds to perform most abortions.

In the compromise negotiations, Democrats won the deletion of all of the EPA-related provisions as well as the proposed restriction on Planned Parenthood.

One nonspending provision that remains would take gray wolves off the endangered species list across most of the northern Rocky Mountains.

In the moments before final passage, the Senate defeated a House-backed proposal to deny money to implement the year-old health care law. The rejection had been expected, but Republicans sought the vote in an attempt to force Democrats to take a stand on a law with only mixed support in the polls.

Also voted down was the proposal to deny federal funds to Planned Parenthood.

Thursday’s overall legislation drew the support of 179 Republicans and 81 Democrats in the House.

Another 59 Republicans and 108 Democrats opposed the bill.

In the Senate, 48 Democrats, 32 Republicans and independent Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut voted in favor, while three Democrats, 15 Republicans and independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont were opposed.

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