House Votes to Cut Food Stamps to Avoid Defense Reduction

The U.S. House voted to cut food stamps, federal workers’ benefits and other domestic programs to avoid scheduled reductions in defense spending.

The chamber today passed, 218-199, a plan to cut about $310 billion in spending to replace automatic defense-spending reductions that lawmakers in both parties agree shouldn’t be allowed to take effect in January.

“This plan ensures that we maintain our fiscal discipline and commitment to reducing out-of-control government spending, while making sure our top priority is national security,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican.

Democrats lined up against the measure, H.R. 5652, saying it would put too much of the deficit burden on the needy. The proposal goes to the Democratic-controlled Senate, where it is doomed to failure.

The Republican plan is one that “asks nothing of Mr. Exxon, that asks nothing more of hedge fund managers, but asks those who are most vulnerable in our society to share more pain,” said Representative Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat.

No Democrats supported the plan; 16 Republicans opposed it.

The automatic spending reductions set to begin in January are triggered by the so-called supercommittee’s failure last year to come up with a plan to reduce the $1.2 trillion federal budget deficit. About $55 billion would be subtracted next year from the Pentagon budget, with an equal amount coming from non-defense programs.

Panetta Response

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters today he opposes the House measure even though it sought to protect defense spending, because “it’s not balanced, it’s not fair and ultimately the Senate isn’t going to accept it either.”

The plan faces a veto threat from President Barack Obama. Still, it offers a preview of what Republicans may seek after the November election, when lawmakers will consider in earnest whether to replace the automatic cuts with a new plan.

It also represents a political risk for Republicans. While they say voters will reward them for making tough budget choices, their plan is opposed by many groups. Among them are AARP, the advocacy group for older Americans; the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes reductions in aid to the poor; the National Council of La Raza, which criticized the plan’s effect on illegal immigrants; and the National Treasury Employees Union, representing federal workers.

Minimum Tax

House Democrats offered an alternative that relies mostly on tax increases, including imposing a minimum tax on millionaires. The proposal would curb business-related tax breaks, cut farm subsidies and raise premiums for the government’s flood-insurance program. House Republicans refused to allow a vote on the Democratic plan.

“Apparently our Republican colleagues are kind of worried about what we were going to propose,” said Representative Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. “Let’s ask people who are making over $1 million a year to get rid of some of their tax breaks, to help pay for our common defense so we don’t have to have a budget that whacks everyone else.”

The Republicans’ plan would reduce spending by about $310 billion over a decade, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. It would cut off food stamps to 1.8 million Americans, according to CBO, while reducing aid to millions more. About 280,000 children who receive food stamps would no longer be automatically eligible for free school lunches, CBO said.

Medicaid Enrollment

The measure would make it easier for state governments to cut enrollment in Medicaid, the health care program for the poor, and eliminate Social Services Block Grants, which fund programs such as “Meals on Wheels.”

It would make it tougher for illegal immigrants to claim a child tax credit and would require federal workers to pay more for their pensions, which CBO has said are more generous than private-sector retirement benefits.

Other provisions would reduce funding for the administration’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, tighten medical malpractice laws and reduce Medicaid payments to Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories. It would allow some elements of the scheduled cuts to take effect, including a 2 percent reduction in Medicare spending.

Republicans say difficult choices are necessary and that many of the cuts are designed to clamp down on waste. They say some state governments have stretched the rules and allowed too many people to collect food stamps.

State Governments

State governments “wanted to try to make as many federal dollars as available to as many people as possible,” said Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican.

Democrats “would have you believe that we’re decimating the nutritional safety net and that hungry children and seniors will be left to fend for themselves,” he said. That’s a “scare tactic,” said Lucas, who said the changes would close “program loopholes.”

The cuts drew a sharp critique from Representative Joe Baca, a California Democrat who said he once relied on food stamps.

“This package literally takes food off the table for millions of disadvantaged Americans,” Baca said. “Unless you’ve been in that situation, you don’t know what it’s like.”

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