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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

House GOP prepares to slash federal programs in coming budget showdown

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, March 1, 2023.

By Catie Edmondon

Hard-right House Republicans are readying a plan to gut the nation’s foreign aid budget and make deep cuts to health care, food assistance and housing programs for poor Americans in their drive to balance the federal budget, as the party toils to coalesce around a plan that will deliver on their promise to slash spending.

Republicans are ready this week to condemn President Joe Biden’s forthcoming budget as bloated and misguided, and have said they will propose their own next month. But uniting his fractious conference around a list of deep cuts to popular programs will be the biggest test yet for Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who will need to win the support of Republicans in competitive districts and conservative hard-liners to cobble together the 218 votes needed to win the passage of a budget plan.

Privately, even some top party officials have questioned how Republicans will meet their spending objectives while keeping their members in line.

The most conservative lawmakers in his conference — who are emboldened after their four-day standoff with McCarthy, a California Republican, earlier this year during his election as speaker — are pursuing cuts that they concede could cause political pain and blowback among their colleagues.

“There is going to be a gnashing of teeth,” said Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina, an arch-conservative member of the House Budget Committee, as the Republican majority works to produce its spending blueprint. “It is not going to be a pretty process. But that’s how it should be.”

The ugliness owes in part to a paradigm shift among GOP lawmakers. After decades of futile efforts to cut the enormous costs of Social Security and Medicare, Republicans have pledged not to touch the biggest entitlement programs, whose spending grows automatically and are on an unsustainable trajectory as more Americans reach retirement age. Coupled with their promise not to raise taxes, that leaves the GOP to consider a slash-and-burn approach to a slew of federal programs and agencies whose budgets are controlled by Congress.

As they meet privately to develop their plan, Republicans say they are relying heavily on a budget outline developed by Russell T. Vought, the former Trump administration budget director who now leads the far-right Center for Renewing America.

In an interview, Vought said it made strategic sense to shift away from politically impregnable Social Security and Medicare and instead target an array of programs that conservatives have criticized for years.

“We’re in a total strategic cul-de-sac on the right, and our fiscal warriors and strategists have totally failed in the sense that, point to any cuts we’ve had success-wise since 1997,” Vought said in an interview. “I actually think that that’s the worst part of the federal spending, because it’s the bureaucracy.

“I’m not saying you can balance on discretionary alone,” he said, referring to the part of the federal budget controlled by Congress. “But a work requirement food stamp program is a lot easier to sell than premium support,” he added, referring to a plan to make Medicare beneficiaries shoulder more of their costs.

The strategy suggested by Vought, who has become something of an intellectual and tactical guru to many of the hard-liners in the House Republican Conference, would enact deep spending cuts to what he called the “woke and weaponized government.”

The outline includes a 45% cut to foreign aid; adding work requirements for food stamp and Medicaid beneficiaries; a 43% cut to housing programs, including phasing out the Section 8 program that pays a portion of monthly rent costs for low-income people; cutting the FBI’s counterintelligence budget by nearly half; and eliminating Obamacare expansions to Medicaid to save tens of billions of dollars.

Nearly 40 states have accepted federal funding for expansion under the Affordable Care Act, providing health care coverage for an estimated 12 million individuals living near or below the poverty line.

The proposal would also eliminate the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Pentagon, cut $3.4 billion in State Department migration and refugee assistance, and make Pell grants available only to students whose families cannot contribute any money toward a college education.

Adding work requirements to programs like food stamps is “a given,” according to Norman.

“We’re $32 trillion in debt,” said Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas. “We’ve got to get people back to work, get the economy going.”

A proposal with such cuts will draw attacks that Republicans are targeting the truly needy while avoiding touching the other benefit programs that serve many older Americans with other sources of income. But Republicans say the savings have to be found.

If politicians cannot “change the trajectory on discretionary spending, then we’ll never have the courage to tackle the bigger issues,” said Rep. Josh Brecheen of Oklahoma, a first-term conservative Republican on the Budget Committee. “So we’ve got to have the courage to go after the nondefense discretionary areas that everyone may not agree on.”

Democrats are eager for Republicans to roll out their spending plan, expecting it to provide powerful ammunition to show the GOP intends to slice a range of federal programs relied upon by Americans across all incomes.

Rep. Brendan F. Boyle of Pennsylvania, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, called Vought’s budget plan “an outright war on middle-class America.”

Some Democrats are calling for both parties to find a way to compromise, urging Republicans to drop their threats to use the debt limit to force concessions and Democrats to recognize the need to rein in out-of-control spending.

“We will never solve the problem by having each party running in the opposite direction,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said in an extended Senate floor speech last week as he painted a dire federal fiscal picture. “We will only be able to change course by coming together, embracing common sense, and finding common ground.”

With the GOP holding such a narrow House majority, Republicans conceded that securing the 218 votes needed to approve a budget replete with politically charged cuts would be extremely difficult.

“It is daunting,” said Norman, who said committee Republicans nonetheless would make clear what their budget-cutting plans were when the moment came. “We are going to spell it out.”

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