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Budget Deal Cuts Target EPA, Homeland Security, But Education Spared

April 12, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
New details of the $38.5 billion budget deal that avoided a government shutdown revealed that the Environmental Protection Agency and Homeland Security were among those impacted. Ray Suarez discusses the cuts with Naftali Bendavid, congressional correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressional leaders agreed last week on how much to cut as part of a spending bill to fund the government through September.

Now lawmakers are learning what they’ll be cutting.

Ray Suarez has our report.

RAY SUAREZ: The details of the coming cuts for this fiscal year were released overnight.

For instance, the Environmental Protection Agency would lose $1.6 billion from its budget, largely from eliminating clean water projects. First-responder grants from the Homeland Security Department would be sliced by nearly $800 million. And another $600 million in savings would come from cuts for community health centers.

Those and dozens of other reductions add up to $38 billion in savings, agreed to late Friday. That total includes some $12 billion already cut in three stopgap measures approved earlier in the year. But the new six-month spending bill also protects some key White House interests, especially in education.

Among the protected items: $7.5 billion funding for Head Start, promoting early childhood development; $700 million for the Race to the Top fund that rewards states for implementing reforms; and Pell Grants for low-income college students, keeping the maximum award at $5,550.

On the Senate floor today, Majority Leader Harry Reid said Democrats shielded those priorities and others from Republicans.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev., majority leader: There are many examples where they wanted to cut recklessly, and we insisted on cutting responsibly. Throughout this debate, we stayed true to our values. The American people noticed, and they’re glad we did. By clear majorities, our constituents are glad we stood up for health reform, for women’s health, for cleaner air, and on and on.

RAY SUAREZ: It also became clear today that many of the cuts were one-time only, such as unused census funds and leftover construction money. Some House Republicans argued today it’s not enough to make any real dent in the deficit.

Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan, chair of the Republican Study Committee, said in a statement, “While I respect that some of my Republican colleagues will ultimately support this spending deal, I believe voters are asking us to set our sights higher.”

Jordan said his group, with nearly 180 Republican members, had wanted $100 billion in cuts for the remainder of the fiscal year. In the meantime, lawmakers have begun girding for future budget battles. Much of the focus turned today to President Obama’s planned speech on broader spending reforms.

His 2012 budget didn’t address Social Security and Medicare, but he is expected to do so tomorrow, after briefing the bipartisan congressional leadership. The GOP alternative budget, released last week by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, proposed sweeping changes in Medicare and Medicaid.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said today he’s glad to see the president weigh in.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky., minority leader: So, hopefully, the president will put forward a plan that doesn’t just pay lip service to the commitments we have made to seniors and the poor but which acknowledges the unique problems that this generation and arising generations of Americans face.

We all know that both sides will have to play a part in addressing the crisis we face. So, we would do well to leave all dishonest rhetoric aside.

RAY SUAREZ: Before lawmakers can do that, they still have to get final approval to a compromise on this year’s spending. A final vote is set for Thursday.

For more, we are joined by Naftali Bendavid, congressional correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.

Well, we had the total before. Now we have the particulars. Were there any cuts that you hadn’t heard talked about in the debate leading up to Friday’s deal?

NAFTALI BENDAVID, The Wall Street Journal: Well, some of them, you know, certainly were surprises. And we didn’t know the details until, as you say — I think the thing actually came out at 1:00 in the morning.

There were big cuts, for example, to high-speed rail, which is something that’s been a real priority of President Obama’s. There was a $1.6 billion cut to the EPA’s budget, which is 16 percent of its budget. That’s a lot. Now, it was less than the Republicans wanted, but it still was enough to really make a big difference.

But something else that I hadn’t really expected was a $500 million cut to the Women, Infants and Children program. This is a nutrition program for low-income families. And that’s a pretty big hit for that program. So there were a lot of Democratic priorities, a lot of President Obama’s priorities that really did take a hit under this deal.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, WIC is a program that came out of the Great Society. When something like that gets such a big cut, what does that tell you about the negotiations that went into this deal? Does something like WIC just have fewer supporters on Capitol Hill than it once did?

NAFTALI BENDAVID: Well, the way the negotiations worked, the Democrats really had to pick and choose which ones they were going to go to the mat for, which ones they were going to give up relatively easy, which ones they were going to settle for half-measures.

And, yes, I mean, welfare programs have somewhat been — had less support, been — had somewhat of a bad reputation in some quarters for some time. And so, obviously, that program had fewer defenders. It’s also a program that helps the poor. Those often do have less of a powerful constituency than other programs.

But I think that’s what happened. A lot of hard choices had to be made. Democrats in particular had to swallow things they didn’t like. And that ended up being one of the victims.

RAY SUAREZ: The Pentagon budget will increase somewhat overall, but still a very controversial weapons system — or part of a weapons system — was cut. Tell us about that.

NAFTALI BENDAVID: Oh, that — you’re talking about the Joint Strike Fighter. Well, this was particularly controversial, in part because — or interesting, I guess you should say, because this engine was built right near Congressman Boehner’s — Speaker Boehner’s district.

And so it was thought that maybe that would be protected somehow. But, really, it’s something the military doesn’t want. And it was very hard to defend, even among Republicans. And so people did notice when that fell by the wayside, in part because it had such a powerful patron.

RAY SUAREZ: Now that the details are out, were Republican and Democratic members starting to pick out programs they favor and say they didn’t like the look of this?

NAFTALI BENDAVID: Oh, absolutely. This is not a deal that anyone loves, by any stretch of the imagination.

I mean, all the responses to it were lukewarm at best. You know, the highest praise was, well, it was bipartisan; it prevented the government from being shut down, and so maybe we can tolerate it. But in fact, there was pretty strong opposition from the right and from the left.

Sen. Rand Paul sent out a letter just excoriating the deal, saying it cuts a minuscule amount compared to the deficits we face, urging his colleagues to vote against it. And you had a similar reaction on the left, where people like Sen. Bernie Sanders said, you know, this is Robin Hood in reverse. You know, it’s taking from the poor and giving to the rich.

So, there’s no question that there is going to be a reasonable amount of opposition to this. My sense is it will go through when it’s voted on later this week, but not without a lot of complaining.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, now that we have gotten this kind of reaction, are the — the lines starting to form? Is the terms of debate starting to emerge for both raising the debt ceiling and that coming vote and negotiating the 2012 budget?

NAFTALI BENDAVID: Well, I think the lines are formed. And I think, if anything, we’re sort of setting the stage for fiercer debates.

I think from the Republican perspective, their appetites have been whetted for even more cuts. You know, one reason that some of them are going along with this is because they have the understanding that there are bigger cuts to come in the 2012 budget and around the debt limit.

Democrats, on the other hand, feel, I think many of them, like they have given a lot of what they can give. So, on the one hand, it sets the stage for these coming fights. On the other hand, I think it’s going to make them that much harder to reach an agreement on.

RAY SUAREZ: So, what happens next? As we lean forward, as we pivot toward the coming weeks, what are some of the big items, and what kind of timetable are they on?

NAFTALI BENDAVID: Well, the current deal is going to be voted on by the end of the week, but then we will turn fairly quickly to both the 2012 budget, which is really much more far-reaching and has really significant cuts and changes suggested by Congressman Paul Ryan. And it’s going to be a huge topic of debate.

But also, there is going to be a vote that has to be within just the next one or two months on raising the nation’s debt limit. And that’s going to be very controversial. There are a lot of Republicans saying, no way will they raise the country’s debt limit or vote to do so unless they feel that they see really serious moves to reduce the deficit and the debt.

And so I think that we’re going to see some very intense fights and some real big discussions about the country’s future. And really, this fight as much as anything is about what we want our government to be, what its scope and reach and size and shape should be. It’s not just about the dollars. It’s about the vision that we have for the country’s government. I think that’s why it’s so intense and emotional.

RAY SUAREZ: Naftali Bendavid, thanks for joining us.

NAFTALI BENDAVID: Thanks.