WASHINGTON — At the halfway mark of their 100-day "contract with America," House Republicans on Wednesday began reducing a number of spending programs that are dear to Democrats but that the GOP insists must be scaled back to provide funds for last year's federal disaster aid.
Taking the first steps in a larger legislative struggle over spending priorities, 10 House subcommittees began the politically explosive process of putting the knife to more than $7 billion in programs approved last year.
The GOP insists that the $7 billion to $8 billion in cuts are needed so the government can pay for disaster assistance, much of which went to victims of last year's Northridge earthquake, rather than simply run up the deficit.
On the table is a smorgasbord of potential cuts, ranging from public broadcasting to Clinton's national service program. The debate surrounding them is seen as a prelude to the larger battles to come over next year's federal budget and it underscores the high stakes and pitched emotions permeating the process since the Republicans seized control of Congress.
On Wednesday, as the first cuts were considered by subcommittees, President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) traded a series of barbs that further illustrated the growing enmity between the two camps.
Gingrich accused the President of demonstrating a "failure to lead" by not accepting a moratorium on new federal regulations--another issue that House Republicans take up today.
Clinton pledged to block any GOP attempts to cancel school breakfast and lunch menus, arguing that "it would be a terrible mistake."
In a meeting with congressional Democrats to review issues looming under the contract, the House GOP campaign manifesto, he urged his party to stand together against the Republican initiatives. He particularly criticized the GOP plan to turn school lunch programs over to state block grants.
"An old conservative adage used to be, if it ain't broke, don't fix it," the President said.
"Here's a program that isn't broke, that's done a world of good for millions and millions of children of all races and backgrounds all across our country. And I think it would be a terrible mistake to put an end to it, to gut it, to undermine it."
Among the most contentious items on the Republican agenda is a proposal to chop federal funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which received $285 million from the government this fiscal year. A subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee is considering cutting that amount by $47 million next year and $94 million the following year.
The subcommittee was meeting late into the night Wednesday to discuss those cuts as part of a package of $4.3 billion in reductions.
Elsewhere, the Appropriations Committee's interior subcommittee cut $327 million from a host of programs, including $8 million from grants to performing artists, $20 million from an energy program to purchase alternative-fuel vehicles and $22 million that was to build storage space for a Smithsonian collection of Native American artifacts.
Subcommittee chairman Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) warned that further and deeper cuts for national arts endowments lie ahead.
But Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.) questioned the wisdom of cutting funds for such things as the Native American exhibit.
The effort will continue today, when Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), chairman of an Appropriations subcommittee, takes up his own recision package, including cuts for Clinton's cherished national service initiative.
"We're on a new glide path," Lewis said. "I fully expect the recisions will pass the subcommittee. It will be contentious but this is a new age and new time."
Lewis said that he will seek a $210-million cutback in the national service program, taking the program back to its 1994 funding level of $370 million.
Even as the spending cuts for the disaster aid are being made, Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, warned that much more is to come.
"This committee will in fact be back on the floor with $15 billion-plus in real cuts," he said.
Echoing his remarks was Gingrich, who also signaled tougher fights ahead over the next 50 days on such contract issues as welfare reform and congressional term limits. He said he already has drawn up a "draft document" that the GOP is reviewing.
"If you look at what's left to do, there's still a ton of work," the Speaker said.
Staff writer James Bornemeier contributed to this story.