President Donald Trump’s budget proposal got a rough reception Thursday on Capitol Hill.
“Not our starting point.” “Not something that will fly around here politically.” “Congress will do its own budget.”
And that’s just the Republicans.
In his first budget request to Congress, Trump has proposed adding $54 billion to the Pentagon and the departments of Homeland Security and Energy and cutting an equal amount in domestic funding. That dramatic shift in spending would mean slashing or terminating dozens of federal programs.
Democrats, as expected, blasted the 64-page proposal — known as a “skinny budget” — as radical and cruel, especially for its cuts to programs that support the poor.
Yet it’s clear that the Trump budget would gut programs favored by Republicans as well. And key GOP lawmakers in both the House and Senate are already signaling they won’t move forward with Trump’s proposal.
Trump is about to find what other presidents have before him — lawmakers in both parties like to talk about cutting spending and reducing the deficit. But don’t cut their own pet program, or one that will cost them politically. That’s something that won’t do, no matter who is sitting in the Oval Office.
“I am very concerned that deep cuts to our diplomacy will hurt efforts to combat terrorism, distribute critical humanitarian aid, and promote opportunities for American workers,” said Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, of dramatic reductions in the State Department and foreign aid budgets. “Especially when the United States is fighting ISIS and millions are at risk of starvation around the world.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who serves on both the Appropriations and Foreign Relations panels, also criticized the cuts in the State Department budget, although he backed other parts of Trump’s proposal.
“I do not support the proposed 28 percent cut to our international affairs budget and diplomatic efforts led by the State Department,” Rubio said in a statement. “These programs are integral to our national security, and cuts at these levels undermine America’s ability to keep our citizens safe.”
The politics of supporting the Trump budget plan, said one top House Republican, are so dangerous that “I don’t think we’d get 50 votes for it.”
Rep. Hal Rogers, former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and still a senior member of the panel, said he plans to make a personal pitch to the White House in support of a long list of programs that have “proved themselves worthy.”
The Kentucky Republican vowed to fight for agencies that help create jobs, such as the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Economic Development Association, as well as grants that focus on community development, all of which the White House has proposed eliminating. Rogers also pointed to infrastructure programs like Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grants, and another initiative that benefits rural airports.
“Some of the things that a poor district like mine have come to depend upon, I’m obligated to fight for,” Rogers said. “Those are the areas that need help the most.”
Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney — who was a House member until a couple weeks ago — told reporters the White House was anticipating blowback within the GOP.
Yet Mulvaney said Trump and senior administration officials believe there will have to be painful discretionary spending cuts in order to shift government spending toward programs the White House feels are defensible and working as designed. Without such changes, he argued, Trump and Republicans will never be able to bring spending under control, especially if Trump refuses to touch entitlement programs, as he promised repeatedly during the campaign.
“I’ve been on the Hill long enough to know some of these will be very unpopular,” Mulvaney said Thursday when asked about program cuts.
“We’re always dealing with special interests from back home, we’re always dealing with lobbyists back home. The president is dealing with none of that,” Mulvaney added, in describing his own experience as a lawmaker. “He certainly didn’t focus on how these programs might impact a certain congressional district.”
Mulvaney then launched into lengthy criticism of after-school programs for children and “Meals on Wheels” food service for the elderly and homebound. As OMB director, that might be a straightforward calculation. As a representative or senator, that’s a vote that lawmakers are not going to want to take.
“I think the president’s proposal is not our starting point,” said Rep. Steve Stivers (Ohio), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is tasked with safeguarding the House majority. “A $54 billion trade from domestic to defense spending — and I consider myself a defense hawk — I think that some of the cuts are a little drastic in certain places.”
“I’ve been here 22 years. I’ve seen a whole bunch of presidential budgets submitted,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.). “It’s still the House and Senate Budget committees that decide, and ultimately it’s the Appropriations Committee and whatever happens in the fall that decides.”
Lucas added, “I respect the president for making tough choices. But I need my county [Farm Service Agency] offices, and I need to make sure we have the ability to feed ourselves and make sure nobody goes hungry.”
For many Republicans, one of the most onerous cuts proposed by Trump was a $5.8 billion reduction to the National Institutes of Health, amounting to nearly one-fifth of the agency’s budget.
Republicans beginning with former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) had long championed NIH, and seeing Trump propose a dramatic decrease was a body blow to some GOP lawmakers. Just two years ago, more than 100 Republicans signed a letter urging an uptick in medical research funding, including House Freedom Caucus members like Dave Brat of Virginia.
“When you’re looking at a nearly $6 billion cut to the NIH, that one kind of stands out to me,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Arkansas), who sits on the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NIH funding. “In that particular category, NIH has the potential — with a certain investment — to bend the cost curve on fighting many diseases… I think it’s unwise to be taking those kinds of cuts in the NIH at this stage of the game.”
Womack said Trump’s plan would be “asking the Appropriations Committee to do some things that may not be politically possible in the framework that we have to work with.”
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