At 4:39 a.m. Saturday morning, House Republicans passed a $1.2 trillion budget for the remainder of fiscal year 2011, approving $60 billion package in spending cuts targeted primarily at domestic programs. After five days of fierce debate between Republicans and Democrats over shrinking the size and scope of federal government, the 235-189 vote was along partisan lines: Not a single Democrat cast a voted for the bill and only three Republicans voted against it. The GOP, which gained control of the House after last November’s mid-term elections, will use the budget vote in their latest power play as an opportunity to dismantle the agenda of President Obama piece by piece. “It’s democracy in action,” the exultant House Speaker John Boehner told the press during the course of the marathon session.
It’s clearly evident that the budget battle will grow in ferocity as Republicans and Democrats gear up for the 2012 presidential election. The standoff with Republicans and ongoing budget negotiations will prove to be a big test Obama’s political resolve and dexterity as the nation faces a possible government shutdown.
The Republicans’ proposal would quickly impose steep spending reductions in nearly every quarter of government for the fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30. The GOP used the process, in part, as a referendum on Obama’s healthcare reform legislation and expansive financial industry makeover. Lawmakers pushed for nearly a dozen amendments to restrict funds going toward implementation of the landmark healthcare law and sought to limit the budget of agencies that would initiate financial reform, including the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Moreover, the Republican’s aggressive plan seeks to eliminate dozens of federal programs like the Corporation for National Service, which operates Americorps, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting; wipe out new funding for food aid for poor pregnant women and local employment assistance programs under the Workforce Investment Act; cut financing for non-profit organizations like Planned Parenthood; and hack federal agency budgets by as much as 40%, targeting entities such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Social Security Administration.
Despite House passage, the bill has little or no chance of becoming law. The Democratic-controlled Senate, which wants spending to stay at 2010 levels for the remainder of the year, will review its version in two weeks, just days before the March 4 deadline when the current funding resolution expires. Even if the Senate approves the measure — an extremely unlikely move — Obama has maintained that the proposed cuts would wreck an already fragile economic recovery and threatened to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.
As Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Missouri) told BlackEnterprise.com, the battle over the president’s spending request for fiscal years 2011 and the $3.7 trillion blueprint the administration unveiled this week for fiscal 2012 represent a “political chess game” for Obama. The Republicans are using Saturday’s predawn budget vote to claim a much-publicized victory, jam the administration’s program and communicate to constituents that the newly-empowered GOP deficit hawks will hold to their campaign pledge to reduce spending levels to pre-2008 levels. Obama continues to argue he was forced to initiate stimulus spending to stabilize an economy that was placed in crisis by Republicans but will exercise “fiscal responsibility” through a more reasonable approach to cost containment: a five-year domestic spending freeze. Moreover, the president’s fiscal 2012 budget proposal promotes his vision to “win the future” by creating jobs and bolstering American competitiveness through investments in industrial innovation, education, infrastructure and clean energy. It’s important to note Obama’s proposal, which calls for elimination of tax cuts he agreed to extend in his December compromise with Republicans as well as restructuring Democrat-backed programs like Pell Grants and low-income heating aid, was met with disdain from legislators on both sides of aisle.
The current political showdown has severe consequences, however. The stopgap funding measure is set to expire expires on March 4 unless Congress approves a short-term extension — a move vehemently opposed by Boehner & Co. If action is not taken then the federal government will shutdown. Most government operations would cease. Large numbers of federal workers — except those related to national security, public health and safety, and law enforcement and prison control — would be furloughed. Veterans, individuals applying for Social Security benefits and others in need of such government assistance would be forced to fend for themselves.
It’s been 16 years since the last government shutdown when another Democratic president engaged in a fiscal face-off with a different ultra-conservative, Republican-controlled Congress. During that standoff, Bill Clinton proved extremely effective in swaying public sentiment. They blamed an intractable GOP for the nation’s budgetary mess. Clinton significantly raised his political capital and used the incident to win re-election in 1996. Since Republicans today have shown a similar unwillingness to compromise, Obama may be betting that this put-the-nation-first posture will further solidify his centrist credentials and strengthen support among independent voters.
In interviews with White House officials, congressional legislators and economists this week, one thing is clear: More than any other group. low-income African Americans will feel the brunt of blows from these budget battles. Even though the Obama Administration and Senate Democrats may be able to keep House Republicans from using a “double meat axe” on the remainder of the 2011 budget and the administration’s 2012 proposal, any compromise will mean millions, if not billions, in cuts to safety-net programs. As Cleaver told BE earlier this week: “While there’s a great deal of talk about proportional cuts, it feels like the poor are taking a much heavier hit than the middle and upper classes.”
Many of our questions about the budget will be surely be answered come March 4 or sooner — and we probably will not like the response.