House Republicans are using spending cuts as a weapon in the health care fight

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEJuly 24, 2013 

WASHINGTON - By moving to gut funding for many of President Barack Obama's top priorities, Republicans are making a fresh push to hold government financing hostage unless the president's health care law is stripped of money this fall.

As Obama prepares to deliver a major economic address Wednesday in Illinois, Republicans in Washington are delivering blow after blow to programs he will promote as vital to economic recovery - from spending on infrastructure and health care to beefing up regulatory agencies.

On Tuesday, a House Appropriations subcommittee formally drafted legislation that would cut the Environmental Protection Agency's budget by 34 percent and eliminate Obama's newly announced greenhouse gas regulations. The bill cuts financing for the national endowments for the arts and the humanities in half, and trims the Fish and Wildlife Service budget by 27 percent.

For the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, Obama has requested nearly $3 billion for renewable energy and energy efficiency programs - a mainstay of his economic agenda since he was first elected. The House approved $826 million.

Senate Democrats are seeking $380 million for ARPA-E, an advanced energy research program. The House allocated $70 million.

A House bill to finance labor and health programs, expected to be unveiled Wednesday, makes good on Republican threats to eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The labor and health measure - for years the most contentious spending bill - will protect Head Start, special education and the National Institutes of Health, but to do so education grants for poor students will be cut by 16 percent and the Labor Department funding by 13 percent, according to House Republican aides.

"These are tough bills," said Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., who leads the House Appropriations Committee. "His priorities are going nowhere."

SENATE VS. HOUSE

The Senate, controlled by Democrats, will not go along with the House cuts, but the different approaches will complicate negotiations. With just 24 legislative days remaining before Oct. 1, talks to resolve the disparities have not really begun, lawmakers said, putting Congress and the president on a collision course that could shut down the government after this fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

"This is as serious a challenge on fiscal matters as I've ever seen," said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat and a veteran of more than three decades in Congress.

In the Senate, Republicans are circulating a letter to Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, warning that they will not approve any spending measure to keep the government operating after Sept. 30 if it devotes a penny to put in place Obama's health care law.

Signers so far include the No. 2 and No. 3 Republican senators, John Cornyn of Texas and John Thune of South Dakota, as well as one of the party's rising stars, Marco Rubio of Florida.

The letter, drafted by Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, states: "If Democrats will not agree with Republicans that Obamacare must be repealed, perhaps they can at least agree with the president that the law cannot be implemented as written. If the administration will not enforce the law as written, then the American people should not be forced to fund it."

CUTS AND MORE CUTS

Taken together, efforts in both chambers amount to some of the most serious cuts to domestic spending since the Republicans in 1995 tried to shutter the departments of Energy, Education and Commerce - the ensuing battle with then-President Bill Clinton and Democrats ended up shutting down the government for 28 days.

"It's about time we cut some spending around here," said Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Budget Committee.

At the White House, senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Republicans were offering no plan "other than indiscriminate cuts as far as the eye can see and repeal Obamacare as often as possible."

"We need them to step away from the brink, stop the gridlock and work with Democrats to make progress," Pfeiffer said. "If they don't, a train wreck is inevitable and the country will suffer."

To resolve the brewing fiscal crisis, the House and Senate must first agree on a total spending number for the next fiscal year, then adjust their respective spending plans to comply with it.

Republicans would have to drop their insistence that spending in fiscal 2014 be set at a level equal to the total fixed by the 2011 Budget Control Act, then cut further by the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, something that Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said Tuesday that he will not do.

Democrats would have to come down from the spending levels set in the massive bills being drafted in the Senate. And Obama, who has issued veto threats on every House spending bill, would have to give up on some of his many priorities, Republicans say.

But beyond a few casual conversations on the Senate floor and between White House aides and Republican senators, no real negotiations have even begun, leaving yet another fiscal crisis looming.

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