With a budget deal in hand, lawmakers turn to the details
WASHINGTON — As more details of the budget deal between President Barack Obama and congressional leaders trickled out on Sunday, lobbyists and lawmakers stepped up their efforts to secure or kill specific provisions benefiting wolf hunters in Montana, profit-making colleges and various public works projects.
Obama; the House speaker, John A. Boehner; and the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, reached the agreement late Friday, just hours before the government would have shut down for lack of spending authority to cover the remainder of the fiscal year.
But it became evident Sunday that they had yet to work out the details of the agreement, which would cut roughly $38 billion from a federal budget expected to exceed $3.7 trillion this year.
"You may not be surprised to hear this, but they're still sifting through the areas where they are going to make cuts," Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said Sunday on the ABC News program "This Week."
A Republican congressional aide said Sunday night that the House and Senate Appropriations committees were still working on the fine points, since "thousands of budget line items have to be negotiated."
The agreement would cut $13 billion from programs at the departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services and would extract $1 billion more in an across-the-board cut from domestic agencies. There will also be reductions to housing assistance programs and some health care programs, along with $8 billion in cuts to the State Department and foreign aid, said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director.
White House officials and congressional Republicans were still fighting Sunday over a proposal to block Obama administration rules that would establish tight standards for profit-making colleges and vocational schools.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said that many profit-making schools do not equip students to obtain "gainful employment," but leave them saddled with debt. The rules, he said, are needed to protect students and taxpayers against "wasteful spending on educational programs of little or no value."
Profit-making colleges mobilized support over the weekend for a Republican amendment to the spending bill that would delay the rules for at least six months.
In an e-mail to his members, Harris N. Miller, president of the industry's trade group, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, made an "urgent request," saying, "We need you to make calls this weekend!"
The status of the "gainful employment" rule is not settled, Miller said, and he warned that tens of thousands of students could find themselves without federal aid if the rule took effect.
Montana hunters appear to have been more successful in their bid to influence the legislation.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said the budget bill included his proposal to remove gray wolves in Montana and Idaho from the federal list of endangered species. This would enable the two states to manage their wolf populations and to allow hunting of the animals if they choose.
"This wolf fix isn't about one party's agenda," Tester said. "It's about what's right for Montana and the West."
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and chairman of the Finance Committee, had urged Obama to remove the gray wolf from the list as part of any budget agreement.
"Montanans don't need D.C. bureaucrats telling us how to manage wolves in our state," Baucus said.
Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, strongly objected to the change.
"In all the decades of the Endangered Species Act," Schlickeisen said, referring to the 1973 law, "Congress has never legislatively removed protections for any species. It's bad to do it for the wolf, and it could set a very bad precedent, replacing scientific determinations with politics."
Montana officials want to conduct a regulated hunt of wolves, which prey on elk and other big game in the western part of the state.
The budget agreement also takes aim at two provisions of the new health care law. It would cut more than $2 billion set aside for creation of private nonprofit health insurance cooperatives.
It also eliminates a program that would have allowed hundreds of thousands of lower-income workers to opt out of employer-sponsored health plans and use the employer's contribution to buy coverage on their own, through new insurance exchanges.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the architect of this provision, lamented its demise.
"Publicly," Wyden said, "both parties say they are champions of choice and competition and making health insurance more affordable for everyone. But then behind closed doors they kill a program that does exactly that. This seems like a victory for special interests."
Many employers had objected to the Wyden provision, saying it would increase their costs by allowing younger and healthier entry-level employees to opt out of employer-sponsored plans.
Carl Hulse contributed reporting.
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