Republicans controlling the House pressed ahead Tuesday with slashing cuts to domestic programs far deeper than the cuts departments like Education, Interior and State are facing under an already painful round of automatic austerity.
Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security and the Pentagon would be spared under the plan approved by the House Appropriations Committee on a party-line vote, but legislation responsible for federal firefighting efforts and Indian health care would absorb a cut of 18 percent below legislation adopted in March.
At issue are deep agency budget cuts required under automatic across-the-board reductions that are the result of Washington being unable to agree of alternative ways to curb the deficit. This year, the cuts are being applied to domestic agencies and the Pentagon both; Tuesday's plan is for the 2014 budget year beginning Oct. 1 and restores cuts to the military while making cuts to domestic programs favored by Democrats even deeper.
The plan lacks specifics but focuses the biggest cuts on a huge domestic spending bill that funds aid to local school districts, health research and enforcement of labor laws.
Capitol Hill's budget would be untouched, however. House GOP leaders, who have boasted recently of their efforts to cut Congress' generous budget, opted against cutting further below levels imposed under the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that began taking effects in March. In fact, the House would get a 1.6 percent budget increase when measured against current levels.
The foreign aid budget would be sharply cut as well, while a bill funding the IRS budget and implementation of new financial regulations would absorb a 20 percent cut from levels approved just two months ago.
The panel's 12 funding bills make up the approximately $1 trillion portion of the $3.6 trillion federal budget that passes Congress each year in the form of day-to-day operating budgets for agencies. This so-called discretionary portion of the budget is moving through the Appropriations committees in an increasingly arduous path that bears little resemblance to the way Congress is supposed to do its work.
Under a 2011 budget deal, the panel was supposed to receive about $1.06 trillion for the 12 appropriations bills; the House panel is instead stuck with $967 billion under the so-called sequestration imposed as punishment for Washington's inability to follow up the 2011 deal with further deficit cuts.
"This is going to be a tough year," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky. "The guillotine of sequestration has fallen, and I think we all agree that its consequences have been, and will continue to be, very harmful."
The panel's move came as Democrats and Republicans remain sharply apart on broader budget issues like taxes. Top Senate Democrats and a handful of sympathetic Republicans tried in futility Tuesday to take steps to create a House-Senate negotiating panel on broader budget issues like taxes and curbing the rising costs of benefit programs like Medicare and food stamps, whose budgets are mostly on autopilot. But tea party Republicans like Rand Paul of Kentucky are blocking the Senate from moving to create a so-called conference committee.
Action on a broader but nonbinding budget blueprint would also give the Appropriations panels of the GOP-controlled House and Democratic Senate a common number to work from. Instead, the Senate panel is drafting far more generous bills that total almost $100 billion above the companion House measures.
Neither House not Senate are likely to have much luck in advancing the measures very far unless a broader deal is made. Senate Republicans are likely to block bills above the House levels while the House is unlikely to be able to advance legislation cutting so deeply since Democrats are sure to withhold support.