A stopgap spending bill passed in December expires March 4. Enacting a full-year bill promises to be a difficult test of the new balance of power in Washington. Republicans control only the House, but Democrats acknowledge that — with the deficit on pace to hit $1.5 trillion this year — some spending cuts will have to be made.
"We're not burying our heads on the sand. We recognize that we have to do something," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Obama's most powerful ally on Capitol Hill.
Ryan's numbers illustrate that cutting the discretionary portion of the government passed by Congress each year won't do hardly enough to dent trillion-dollar-plus deficits. But both parties are wary about tacking rapidly-spiraling benefit programs like Medicare, Social Security and the Medicaid health programs for the poor and disabled.
Republicans say some agencies such as the FBI, the Indian Health Service and NASA are unlikely to be cut all the way back to pre-Obama levels. But that means other agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency, would have to absorb even bigger cuts.
Returning to 2008 levels would produce dramatic reductions for many agencies: a 41 percent cut for EPA clean water grants; an 8 percent cut to NASA, a 16 percent cut for the FBI and a 13 percent cut in the operating budget of the national parks.
The hard-charging GOP freshman class — especially newcomers from Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York and New Hampshire — may have some second thoughts when confronted with big cuts to the program that provides home heating subsidies to the poor.
Republicans in Texas, Florida and Alabama — where NASA facilities mean thousands of jobs — are sure to fight against cuts to the space agency. NASA could have to abandon the International Space Station, the White House warns.
Lawmakers in both parties from rural districts are likely to resist cuts to a program that subsidizes service by smaller airlines to isolated cities and towns like Scottsbluff, Neb., and Burlington, Iowa. Smaller subsidies or tighter rules would probably mean some communities would lose service.
It's unclear so far how Republicans will treat particularly sensitive programs such as the Women, Infants and Children program, which provides food for low-income pregnant women, mothers and young children.
Separately, White House budget chief Jacob Lew met with Senate Democrats about the budget, hearing pleas from deficit hawks like Budget panel chair Kent Conrad of North Dakota to be aggressive in taking on the government's geyser of red ink.
"We we're having a good conversation about how to think about the challenges of the budget and fiscal policy going forward and that conversation will continue," Lew told reporters.
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