WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump asked Congress on Thursday to approve a 2018 budget that would bolster military programs and begin building a wall on the southern border with Mexico while drastically cutting many federal agencies.
Trump’s plan, showcasing his administration’s priorities, is just the first volley in what will likely be an intense battle over spending in coming months. Although the Senate and House are controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans, Congress holds the federal purse strings and seldom approves presidents’ budget plans.
Trump’s plan took a big swipe at some federal institutions, envisaging a more than 31 percent cut, or $2.6 billion, for the Environmental Protection Agency and a 28 percent reduction, or $10.9 billion, for the State Department and other international programs.
In a message with his budget submitted to Congress, Trump said he aimed to advance “the safety and security of the American people,” adding he would do so with $54 billion in added military spending next year and putting more money into deporting illegal immigrants.
Predictably, Democrats denounced the proposed steep cuts to spending on domestic programs. But some prominent Republicans were also quick to criticize the budget.
“These increases in defense come at the expense of national security,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has not hesitated to take on Trump. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who like Graham ran unsuccessfully for president in 2016, leveled similar sentiments, as did some prominent Republicans in the House.
House Speaker Paul Ryan sidestepped reporters’ questions about whether he supported State Department cuts, saying the White House blueprint was just the start of the budget process.
Protecting national interests requires a comprehensive approach, “including not just military engagement, but also the full and responsible use of all diplomatic tools at our disposal,” said Republican Rep. Hal Rogers, who chairs a panel that oversees State Department and foreign aid spending.
Under Trump’s plan, funding would disappear altogether for 19 independent bodies that count on federal money for public broadcasting, the arts and regional programs from Alaska to Appalachia.
Trump’s budget outline covered just “discretionary” spending, or programs that must be renewed annually by Congress, for the 2018 fiscal year starting on Oct. 1.
It did not address mandatory “entitlement” programs, such as Social Security retirement benefits and federally backed health care for the elderly, poor and disabled, that make up most of the federal budget. For years, conservatives have been clamoring for reforms to these programs to save money.
Trump also asked for $25 billion more for core Defense Department programs for the current fiscal year, as well as $5 billion more for combat operations. A detailed copy of this request seen by Reuters showed some of the added funds would be for procurement of technology such as F-35 fighter aircraft and drone systems.
About $13.5 billion of the supplemental request was earmarked for aircraft, missiles and ships. It included THAAD missiles, Black Hawk helicopters and F-35s made by Lockheed Martin Corp, as well as F/A-18 warplanes and Apache helicopters manufactured by Boeing Co.
Also for this fiscal year, Trump requested $3 billion more for the Department of Homeland Security, with some of that money intended for planning and construction of the border wall that he made a major part of his 2016 election campaign.
Congress will likely consider the supplemental request by April 28, when regular funding expires for most federal agencies.
Open for discussion
On the 2018 budget, Trump is willing to discuss priorities with Congress, said White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, a former South Carolina congressman who made a name for himself as a spending hawk before he was picked to join Trump’s Cabinet.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi blasted the plan, saying, “Throwing billions at defense while ransacking America’s investments in jobs, education, clean energy and life-saving medical research will leave our nation weakened.”
U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats, said that he “recognize[s] and agree[s] with the need to reduce federal spending as part of a balanced effort to tackle the debt and deficit, but I have a hard time seeing how eliminating heating assistance, cutting medical research, and ending economic development funding do little more than harm people, families and businesses across Maine.”
“To me, this doesn’t seem like a serious attempt to offer a reasonable, cost-cutting budget — and, sadly, it’s hard-working, middle-class folks throughout the state who would bear the brunt of it all,” King said.
Moderate Republicans expressed unease with potential cuts to popular domestic programs, such as home-heating subsidies, clean-water projects and job training.
“I am troubled by the proposed reductions for certain education programs, low-income heating assistance and weatherization, clean energy technology and other programs,” said U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine known for her moderate stance.
“I am particularly concerned about the proposed cuts in life-saving biomedical research at the NIH, which threaten to impede the important progress that has been made in our fight to develop treatments, means of prevention, and cures for diseases such as diabetes, ALS, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, our nation’s most costly disease,” Collins said.
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, called Trump’s budget “foolish and shortsighted,” saying that it would leave Americans less healthy, safe and economically secure.
“Cutting Meals on Wheels, heating assistance for low-income families, and essential economic stimulus programs that rural states like Maine rely on in order to build a 1.5 billion dollar wall with Mexico shows how out of touch President Trump is with the needs of real Americans,” Pingree said.
Even Maine Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin was critical of some aspects of the budget.
“I’m specifically concerned about making too significant reductions for programs like [Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program], Community Development Block Grants and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting,” he said.
However, Poliquin, a member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, praised the impact the proposed budget could have on veterans. “I’m extremely encouraged the president has signaled he shares this interest in his proposal, which promises vital increases to veterans’ services in Maine and across the nation,” he said.
For years, conservatives have sought many of these proposals, only to see them defeated amid opposition from Democrats and some moderate Republicans. It was unclear whether Trump will have more success.
The budget outline does not incorporate Trump’s plan for sparking $1 trillion in investments to build roads, bridges, airports and other infrastructure projects. The White House has said the infrastructure plan still is to come.
The planned defense increases are matched by cuts to other programs so as to not increase the $488 billion federal deficit.
Mulvaney acknowledged the proposal would likely result in significant cuts to the federal workforce, saying, “You can’t drain the swamp and leave all the people in it.”
Reflecting Trump’s repeated election campaign pledge to reduce illegal immigration, Homeland Security would get a 6.8 percent increase, with more money for extra staff needed to catch, detain and deport illegal immigrants.
Trump wants Congress to approve $1.5 billion for the border wall in the current fiscal year — enough for pilot projects to determine the best way to build it — and a further $2.6 billion in fiscal 2018, Mulvaney said.
The estimate for the total cost of the wall will be included in the full budget. That more detailed document is expected in mid-May, and it will project spending and revenues over 10 years.
Trump has repeatedly said that Mexico will pay for the wall, and Mexico has adamantly said it will not. Since Trump took office in January, the White House has said funding would be kick-started in the United States.
The full budget plan will include economic forecasts and the president’s views on “mandatory entitlements” like Social Security and Medicare, which Trump vowed to protect while he was on the campaign trail.
Despite the proposed big cuts to the EPA and the State Department, Mulvaney said their “core functions” would be preserved. Hit hard would be foreign aid, grants to multilateral development agencies like the World Bank and climate change programs at the United Nations.
Trump wants to get rid of more than 50 EPA programs, end funding for former Democratic President Barack Obama’s signature Clean Power Plan aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and cut research programs on renewable energy at the Energy Department.
Other reductions and cuts included community development grants at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which have been around since 1974, more than 20 Education Department programs, anti-poverty grants and a program that helps poor people pay their energy bills.
Trump’s rural base did not escape cuts. The White House proposed a 21 percent reduction to the Agriculture Department, including reducing staff in county offices and ending a popular program that helps farmers donate crops for overseas food aid.
Pingree, a champion of agricultural issues and a member of House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, said the proposed cuts to the USDA would “cripple” the agency and harm farmers and rural communities in Maine.
“Slashing all discretionary funds from Rural Business and Cooperative Services will only stifle economic development in rural America and harm the very communities that the President claims to support,” she said.