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Annual budget release triggers annual budget politics

Democrats charged the president with wanting to cut the social safety net

Copies of President Donald Trump’s budget for fiscal 2021 arrived on Capitol Hill Monday, February 10. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Copies of President Donald Trump’s budget for fiscal 2021 arrived on Capitol Hill Monday, February 10. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call) ()

President Donald Trump’s new budget plan, featuring proposals to reduce the social safety net, has kicked off another round of budget politics.

The cuts proposed Monday played into a line of attack that Democratic groups have been honing for weeks: that Trump would gut spending on health care, housing and food programs, breaking his 2016 campaign promises, if he is granted a second term. And that Republicans in the House and Senate would not stand in his way.

The White House, however, said that on Medicare, the budget would not cut benefits to seniors, and that budget savings in some cases would come by slowing the rate of spending increases. The spending plan also anticipates paying less for prescription drugs, but passing a law to do that would require negotiations with House Democrats, who already passed their own bill.

“Despite what you hear from the other side, Medicare will grow at 6 percent under this budget. The budget does propose good government reforms to lower drug prices, to root out improper payments, and to address wasteful and inefficient spending,” acting White House budget director Russell Vought said.

Democrats, however, were pointing at lines in the budget book showing spending on Medicare going down. In a Monday memo, the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA said those recommended cuts would be part of their messaging in support of the party’s candidates throughout the 2020 campaign.

“It doesn’t matter if this budget document will become law — it is an illustration of Trump’s priorities and true intentions despite his campaign rhetoric,” senior strategist Josh Schwerin wrote in the memo. “Trump has repeatedly made it clear that it is a priority to cut these programs and we will be repeatedly letting voters know about it.”

[10 things to know about Trump’s budget proposal]

Trump’s proposed cuts to Medicare are “among the highest-testing attacks on his record and most detrimental to his re-election chances,” the Priorities USA memo said.

Democratic presidential hopefuls were in New Hampshire on Monday as the budget was being released.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats and has led in recent polling for the Democratic nomination, is also the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee.

“The old cliché is that a budget is a moral document. What kind of unbelievable moral framework allowed this White House to propose $182 billion in cuts to nutrition assistance from needy families, when nearly one in seven households with children are food insecure?” Sanders said in a statement from the committee. “The Trump Budget, outrageously, even cuts billions from a program that provides nutrition assistance for pregnant women, new moms, and their babies.”

Likewise, Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted about the proposed reductions to entitlement programs: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

“Trump wants to take money out of your pockets so there’s more for his rich buddies. We are building a grassroots movement to stop him,” the Massachusetts Democrat said.

Ads focus on health

Advertising campaigns against congressional Republicans in recent weeks have focused on health care — an issue many Democratic freshmen used to flip seats in 2018 — and barely mention impeachment, and they will likely seize on the budget as an opportunity to step it up.

“Washington Republicans own this attack on Americans’ health care and they will have to answer for their fealty to President Trump after spending the last three years fighting to take away protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions, voting against lowering drug prices and now, gutting Medicare and Medicaid,” Robyn Patterson, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement. 

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, Medicare spending would be cut by some $450 billion over 10 years, hitting service providers like hospitals and hospices, as well as cutting payments for durable medical equipment, such as oxygen tanks. Medicaid would be cut by $920 billion over a decade, including a proposed transformation of the program from an open-ended entitlement to capped payments to the states and a placeholder for an unspecified “health reform vision allowance.”

Trump’s proposal to cut $2 trillion from mandatory spending programs opened a line of attack against suburban Republicans who have attempted to appear moderate on health care, Patterson said. That group could include John Katko of New York, Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, who did not join the House GOP effort in 2017 to repeal the sweeping health insurance overhaul passed under President Barack Obama.

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In an attempt to tie vulnerable Senate Republicans to Trump’s proposed cuts, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on Monday released a “cheat sheet” of selected senators’ past votes on proposed cuts to safety net spending.

“The White House’s budget blueprint is a plan that reflects Republican priorities in 2020 — keep attacking vital programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security,” DSCC spokesman Stewart Boss said.

GOP: Where’s your budget?

GOP congressional operatives, for their part, appeared to focus their budget day attacks on the fact that the Democratic-led House is not expected to move ahead on its own fiscal 2021 budget blueprint, a similarly political document that could provide fodder in the opposition direction.

A budget resolution isn’t needed this year because the two-year spending agreement reached last summer already set top-line discretionary spending levels for fiscal 2021.

“Sean Casten is whining on Twitter about the president’s budget,” Carly Atichson, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a rapid-response statement, referring to the Democratic congressman from Illinois’ 6th District. “Does that mean he’s planning on actually doing his job this year and proposing a budget? Recall last year House Democrats, including Casten, failed on that most fundamental responsibility. Maybe instead of tweeting, Casten should get to work.”

Casten, a freshman who flipped a House district in suburban Chicago, had tweeted earlier that the budget was a reflection of the president’s values.

“This one cuts health, housing and education funding, cuts the CDC as coronavirus threatens and cuts environmental protection as global warming bears down,” he wrote.

Democratic lawmakers are also focusing on proposed program terminations within the budget that could have disproportionately adverse effects on their home districts.

That’s true in the case of Michigan Rep. Haley Stevens, who quickly pointed to the proposed elimination of federal support for the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

“I am incredibly disappointed that the President’s latest budget proposal calls for the elimination of this proven, successful program that is supported by my colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” the freshman lawmaker said in a statement. “During such a volatile time for our manufacturing economy, it is shortsighted and irresponsible to eliminate a program that has helped thousands of manufacturers improve operations, integrate new technologies, and create jobs.”

Stephanie Akin and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.

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