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House Panels Cut Spending by $50 Billion

Funds for the food stamp and Medicaid programs are among suggested budget trims.

October 29, 2005|Richard Simon and Joel Havemann | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — House committees completed action Friday on a series of measures that would cut about $50 billion in federal spending in the next five years.

Committee votes included one that would reduce food stamp rolls and another that would trim Medicaid benefits.

But some moderate Republicans and nearly all Democratic lawmakers oppose these cuts, which will be packaged by the House Budget Committee next week into a single, far-reaching bill to reduce the federal budget deficit.

Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina, the top Democrat on the budget panel, called the proposed cuts for the food stamp and Medicaid programs an assault on "key services" for low-income Americans.

Earlier this week, the Senate Budget Committee assembled a $39-billion spending-reduction bill that would largely shield low-income beneficiaries of federal programs from cuts. The Senate plans to vote on that bill next week.

Bread for the World, a Christian lobbying group, complained that a provision approved by the House Agriculture Committee would save $844 million over five years by removing from the food stamp rolls about 300,000 people -- including 70,000 legal immigrants and 225,000 people making the transition from welfare to work.

But committee chairman Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.) called the measure, which would also cut $1 billion from farm subsidies, "a balanced and fiscally responsible ... package preventing any one program from unduly bearing the lion's share of cuts."

Ron Pollock, executive director of liberal advocacy group Families USA, said a $9.5-billion Medicaid cut voted by the House Energy and Commerce Committee would "force low-income people to pay premiums and co-payments that they cannot afford.... Those costs will cause millions of low-income people to lose essential healthcare."

In the meantime, lawmakers from both parties are pushing to increase funding for some programs. The Senate, for example, this week voted to spend $8 billion to prepare the nation for an outbreak of bird flu.

And Gulf Coast lawmakers have proposed a much larger package for reconstruction efforts related to Hurricane Katrina.

After the hurricane struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, Congress provided about $62 billion for immediate relief and the early recovery effort. But so far, about $20 billion has been spent, the White House budget office reported.

White House officials said they did not expect to seek additional funds until early next year. Instead, the White House budget office asked Congress to redirect about $17 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to hurricane reconstruction projects, such as revitalizing the local economy and rebuilding hospitals, levees and highways.

White House budget director Joshua B. Bolten on Friday declined to project what the hurricane recovery effort ultimately could cost.

Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) said that although she was pleased that "part of the nearly $40 billion currently collecting dust in FEMA's bank account will now finally be put to use," the $17 billion "falls far short of the blueprint for reconstruction that the president promised the people of the Gulf Coast."

"We asked for real resources, not an accounting shell game with a wink and nod to possible real commitment down the line," she said.

Efforts are underway to provide further assistance. Congress has approved $6.1 billion in tax breaks to aid victims, and a second hurricane tax relief package is in the works, primarily to encourage business investment in the Gulf Coast.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing legislation to allow hurricane victims to retroactively buy into the federal flood insurance program.

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