WASHINGTON — Republicans now controlling the House promised Thursday to slash domestic agencies' budgets by almost 20 percent for the coming year, beginning their drive to cut spending to the level it what before President Barack Obama took office.
"Washington's spending spree is over," declared Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman who announced the plan. "The spending limits will restore sanity to a broken budget process," he said, returning "to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels."
Republicans won't get everything they want. Democrats are in charge of the White House and the Senate, and even House Republicans may have second thoughts when the magnitude of the cuts sinks in.
The White House says the GOP effort could cause widespread furloughs of federal employees, force vulnerable people off subsidized housing, reduce services in national parks and mean less aid to schools and police and fire departments.
House Republicans are seeking to keep their campaign promise to cut $100 billion from domestic programs. The initial cuts would win approval over the coming weeks as Congress wraps up the long-overdue 2011 budget. The second stage would come as the House GOP advances a fresh round of spending bills for the 2012 budget year, which begins Oct. 1.
The hardest hit agencies would include the Food and Drug Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and the departments of Commerce, Housing and Urban Development and Agriculture, according to partial details released by the House Appropriations Committee. Foreign aid on an annualized basis would take a 6 percent cut. Congress' own budget would be barely touched.
Conservative Republicans want even greater cuts, and they'll be given the chance to impose them in a freewheeling floor debate scheduled for the week of Feb. 14.
In Thursday's plan:
— The Department of Homeland Security would face a budget freeze instead of the 3 percent increase proposed by Obama.
— Rapidly growing spending on veterans' health care appears likely to be largely untouched.
— Republicans would scale back Obama's proposed 4 percent, $23 billion increase for the Pentagon. Instead, the military budget would grow by just $10 billion.
— Popular programs such as health research and federal aid to school districts appear likely to take a hit when lawmakers write the spending bill for the departments of Education, Labor and Health and Human Services. Republicans promise not to cut the minimum $5,550 Pell Grant for low-income college students.
Republicans made a campaign promise to cut $100 billion from Obama's request for domestic agencies such as the Department of Education, for the budget year that began last October. But that year is under way, and they're so far falling short, just $58 billion under the plan released Thursday. They promise to try to fully impose the dramatic cuts during what is sure to be a contentious debate.
The $100 billion in reductions was an inflated promise because it was measured against Obama's budget request for this year. The actual savings would be less because Obama's budget increases weren't approved, and the government is operating at 2010 levels. Instead, the savings from domestic programs in making the switch from 2010 to 2008 — if carried out over a full year — would be about $86 billion, imposing cuts on domestic agencies of 19 percent on average.
Republicans acknowledge they can achieve, at best, $35 billion in overall savings by the Sept. 30, the end of the budget year, after the Pentagon receives its small boost.
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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