Washington Digest: House vote trims social programs, spares military

WASHINGTON - The House voted last week to spare the military from upcoming deep spending cuts, shifting them instead to social programs such as food stamps and Medicaid.

A Republican-backed bill that passed 218-199 rewrites terms of a budget agreement that Congress reached last summer.

That deal called for $98 billion in automatic reductions at the end of this year if lawmakers can't come up with their own strategy for allocating the cuts.

But with the cuts looming, defense hawks said the Pentagon's $55 billion share would lead to reductions of 200,000 soldiers and base closings, and would hamper military readiness.

"It's not shooting ourselves in our foot," said Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif. "It's shooting ourselves in the head."

Democrats said they do not want to weaken the military but want a fairer alternative that would include a mix of spending cuts and tax increases that Republicans have refused to embrace.

"Automatic, indiscriminate, meat-ax cuts scheduled to begin next January are the wrong way to reduce the deficit," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. "We need a responsible alternative."

The House bill canceled the $98 billion in year-end cuts and substituted an alternative that called for $19 billion in cuts and $310 billion in reductions over 10 years in a range of domestic programs such as Meals on Wheels, school lunches and child care grants.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the cuts were necessary to avoid a "debt crisis just like Europe is experiencing."

"If we don't get our spending under control and we don't get our deficit under control, the people who need government the most - the poor, the elderly - they're the ones who get hurt the first and the worst," Ryan said.

The bill passed mostly on a party line. Sixteen Republicans voted against it. No Democrats voted for it.

Reps. Joe Heck and Mark Amodei, both R-Nev., voted for the bill. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., voted against it.

The Senate was not expected to take up the bill, and President Barack Obama has threatened to veto it.


The House passed a $51.1 billion spending bill for the Commerce and Justice departments after wading through more than 60 amendments that sought to add or cut spending or make changes in policies at the bureaucracies.

The closest vote came on an amendment to increase funding for police grants by $126 million to restore it to this year's spending level. NASA would be cut by the same amount as an offset.

Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., said the Community Oriented Policing Services program has been "highly successful" in helping police departments to hire officers and buy equipment.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., opposed taking money from NASA to pay for the increase to COPS.

"To put a spear right at NASA's heart, I think, is a mistake," he said.

Wolf, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that wrote the bill, asked lawmakers to vote down the amendment offering to find an alternative revenue source later in the budget process.

The amendment to increase COPS funding passed, 206-204. Berkley and Heck voted for the amendment. Amodei voted against it.


During debate, lawmakers also passed an amendment that reaffirmed House support for a 1996 law that prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said his proposal would forbid any money to be spent to weaken the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman.

Huelskamp criticized the Obama administration, which has decided not to defend the law against court challenges.

Obama last week further said he was in favor of same-sex marriage, a historic remark by a sitting president.

"The Department of Justice and the president of the United States do not have to agree with the law, but they certainly have to enforce it and respect it," Huelskamp said.

He noted that 30 states have passed laws or constitutional amendments banning gay marriage.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said the amendment was "meaningless" because no funds are being spent to contravene the law.

The Huelskamp amendment passed, 245-171. Heck and Amodei voted for it. Berkley voted against it.


The Senate hit a brick wall over a bill that would prevent interest rates on student loans from doubling on July 1.

Republicans and Democrats seemed to agree on keeping the rates at 3.4 percent for at least another year. But they disagreed over how to offset the $6 billion cost.

Republicans blocked a Democratic bill that would pay for the loan subsidies by eliminating some small business tax benefits. GOP senators said it would hurt small-business owners; Democrats said the tax breaks were a wasteful loophole.

A procedural vote to begin debate was 52-45, eight short of the 60 votes needed to proceed. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., voted to block the bill.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., supported the bill but voted against it in a procedural move that allows him as Senate majority leader to call it up again at a later time.

Republicans have proposed to come up with savings from a health care fund that provides grants for preventive care.

They called it an Obama administration slush fund, while Democrats said it promotes women's and children's health.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.