Senators Back Cuts in Deficit, Not in Budget
WASHINGTON - Even as they call for reining in the record federal budget deficit of $1.6 trillion, more than one-third of the nation's 100 U.S. senators have criticized proposed spending cuts in President Obama's budget that would affect their states.
Some of the proposed cuts are big: NASA's manned moon mission, the Pentagon's C-17 cargo planes, farm payments and crop insurance, oil and gas subsidies.
Some of them are smaller: a flood control project in California, a regional water system in South Dakota, a rural health program in Alaska, cleanup of abandoned mines in Wyoming.
What binds these proposals is the opposition they have engendered in Congress, where lawmakers have criticized Obama for not cutting enough nationally - but cutting too much in their states and districts. Congress, which must approve all annual spending bills, will have the last word.
"The cuts are directly connected to votes," says Jim Nussle, former White House budget director and Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee. "It actually illustrates how we got where we are, as much as it illustrates where we're going."
The most concrete savings in Obama's budget are in domestic programs. As soon as he proposed those cuts last week as part of a three-year freeze on non-security spending, along with defense cuts endorsed by the Pentagon, lawmakers from both parties vowed opposition.
Most complaints came from senators and House members worried about losing jobs in their states or districts. Scrapping the Constellation manned spaceflight program drew protests from Texas, Florida and even Utah, where solid rocket motors are made.
"Budgeting is about priorities, and the president's $3.8 trillion budget proposal reflects the wrong ones," says Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "Human spaceflight is a centerpiece of American exceptionalism and ensuring our national security."
Cuts in the C-17, which has ties to 43 states, were protested in Missouri and California, which have major production facilities.
"I believe in balanced budgets, pay-as-you-go budgeting and supporting investments that make sense, including the C-17 program," says Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. "The C-17 program is critical to so many military and humanitarian missions, and shuttering the line will result in thousands of job losses in California."
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., protested a reduction from $10 million to $2 million for the Lewis&Clark Regional Water System, which will bring treated water to customers in South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa. "Congress and the president must commit to serious spending restraint before the national debt grows beyond our control," Thune says. "However, slashing funding by more than 80(PERCENT) for needed clean drinking water projects that are already in progress will only add to the nation's debt as construction delays drive up costs."
Several of the objections come from lawmakers facing potentially tough elections in the fall, such as Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.
Gillibrand, an appointed freshman senator facing a possible Democratic primary, vowed to oppose Obama's cuts for clean water, environmental and transportation projects. She "is concerned that some of the proposed cuts would inhibit our ability to create jobs and could cause property taxes to rise," spokesman Matt Canter says.
Lincoln, facing a tight re-election campaign, came out strongly against cuts she says would put a "disproportionate burden" on farmers and ranchers. "While I, too, believe we must reduce the federal deficit, we must all share in this responsibility," she says.
Sometimes the opposition is more parochial than political. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, joined with Louisiana Republicans against Obama's plan to reduce tax breaks for oil and gas.
"Sen. Landrieu supports President Obama's efforts to reduce the deficit and make program cuts where appropriate," spokesman Aaron Saunders says. "But she doesn't support increasing taxes on oil and gas producers at a time when this nation needs more, not less, domestic energy production."
In Alaska, the senators from both parties teamed up to fight planned cuts to rural health care programs. Wyoming Republicans and Montana Democrats decried reductions in cleanup funds for abandoned mines.
The solution to the conflict between national deficit and regional spending concerns is to freeze the budget and impose annual caps, says Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee.
Others say the problem has more to do with politics than mathematics.
"The problem is the connection between bringing home the bacon and re-election," says Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. "If we all just concentrate on our states, the country's going to collapse."