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Budget Chairs Sharpen Knives for Cutting Season

This week, the spotlight is on Congressional budget writers and their mammoth task of making just enough people happy just long enough to get a budget plan passed on the House and Senate floors. [IMGCAP(1)]

But trying to adhere to President Bush’s relatively austere $2.7 trillion budget and then turn it into legislative gold is going to take a lot more than political alchemy.

To top it all off, both chambers hope to have committee consideration and floor debate finished by the end of next week, when Members take off for a two-week spring break.

However, just one day before both the House and

Senate Budget Committees are set to start marking up their respective budget blueprints, few details have emerged about just how budgeteers will try to make mandatory spending cuts in cherished federal programs such as Medicaid, farm subsidies and food stamps.

“We’ve got an idea of what we’re looking for from each committee, and we’re continuing those discussions with each of those committees to see if we can [adjust the cuts] a little more here and there,” said Sean Spicer, spokesman for the House Budget Committee.

Even seasoned veterans of the Congressional budget process say they’re still in the dark about how Senate Budget Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) plan on making it all come up rosy in the end.

After working through the weekend, one former Congressional budget aide said the current occupants of the budget suites “haven’t reached a conclusion of how much [in mandatory cuts] they can get away with yet.”

Indeed, the discretionary spending number has been known for some time. House and Senate appropriators have pretty much acknowledged that they’ll have around $843 billion to play with among their various subcommittees. That includes a 4.4 percent increase for military spending, but a 1 percent reduction in most other discretionary programs.

It’s Bush’s pesky goal of trying to halve the $500 billion-plus deficit in the next few years that is really causing the most consternation for budget wonks on Capitol Hill, as that’s where the tough choices on mandatory programs must be made.

Gregg and Nussle “still have to sort through their options on what can survive in committee and how much [in mandatory cuts] can survive attacks on the floor,” noted the former Congressional budget aide. “They’ll worry a lot more about the substance of it and how to get [all the cuts] done later.”

Indeed, budget writers often like to point out that they have nothing to do with the specifics of where spending cuts are made. They just come up with the exact amount of spending that needs to be eliminated.

So it’s no wonder that the specifics of proposed budget cuts are very much on the minds of rank-and-file lawmakers as they wait for Gregg and Nussle to roll out their generalist proposals Wednesday.

Spicer noted that all cuts, of course, are not the same. For example, many of the president’s proposals, particularly on Medicaid, are designed to increase government efficiency and create cost savings.

“We have savings. We don’t cut anything,” said Spicer. “No mandatory program will get less money that it did the year before.”

That’s small consolation to governors and lawmakers who are looking at a Bush budget — and potentially a Congressional budget plan — that calls for nearly $60 billion in Medicaid “savings” over 10 years.

While both the House and Senate Budget panels are stacked with loyal Republicans ready to do their leaders’ bidding, it’s the debate outside of committees, particularly in the Senate, that promises to cause the most tension among Members.

Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), for example, have already made it known that they do not approve of the president’s proposed deep cuts to Medicaid.

Given that neither Snowe nor Smith is on the Budget panel, one might wonder why their stances matter. After all, Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate in 2004 to 55 votes, giving them a good shot of preventing the two centrists from pulling down the budget on the Senate floor.

But because Snowe and Smith are on the Senate Finance Committee, which the budget process will likely dictate as the forum for developing a package of cuts in the Medicaid program, the two could effectively kill the ability of Finance to abide by its budgetary guidelines. Republicans only have a two-seat majority on the panel, and Democrats aren’t expected to play nice when it comes to slashing Medicaid funding. Any proposed savings or cuts that the budget directs the Finance Committee to make on mandatory programs will come under close scrutiny, particularly if Finance is charged with making “unspecified” cuts to mandatory programs.

“That means Medicaid,” noted one knowledgeable Senate GOP aide.

Besides Snowe and Smith, other GOP Senators have also expressed skepticism about the wisdom of being perceived as cutting a popular program for the poor, even if it really amounts to reducing fraud and waste in the program as the president has proposed.

Given the circumstances, Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), also a member of the Budget Committee, is doubtlessly mulling proposed Medicaid cuts presented by Gregg and trying to figure out if he can vote for a budget this week that could be rejected by Finance Republicans later this year.

Grassley must also convince Snowe and a cadre of GOP centrists if he has any hope of enacting more tax cuts this year. So far, Grassley has advocated a modest package of extending expiring tax cuts, but he’s been getting some push back from those in the GOP who envision a broader, more expensive package of tax breaks for a variety of constituencies.

Because there are only five Republican centrists who are likely to buck the leadership on a tax package that is not paid for by offsets, Grassley still has a chance to push through something more ambitious on the Senate floor that could win passage with 50 Republican votes and one more cast by that tried-and-true tie-breaker, Vice President Cheney. Still, those are big ifs.

Another lightning rod for budget writers this year will be whether to force the House and Senate Agriculture committees to make mandatory spending cuts. That would translate into cuts in “red” state farm subsidies, if Bush has his way.

Again, that’s why it’s likely that the budget will offer committee chairmen few specifics on how exactly to pare back mandatory programs. Indeed, Spicer said most affected chairmen were asking the budget panel to give them “a number they can work with” and the flexibility to find cuts on their own.

Indeed, it’s no secret that farm subsidy backers have been looking at other mandatory programs under the Agriculture Committee’s jurisdiction — such as food stamps — to find the $5.4 billion in cuts that Bush has proposed. And other affected chairmen are looking at potential revenue raiser, such as various “user fees” and sales of the broadcast spectrum.

But if you’re looking for concrete answers today, they may be hard to find.

“It’s a fluid process for now over the next 48 hours,” Spicer said Monday.

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