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White House readying last-minute $27B spending cuts plan

'Rescissions' package can be undone by Biden administration, ignored by Democrats

White House budget director Russ Vought is pictured testifying on the president's fiscal 2021 budget request last February.
White House budget director Russ Vought is pictured testifying on the president's fiscal 2021 budget request last February. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Trump administration was preparing a $27.4 billion package of spending rescissions to send to Capitol Hill, likely on Wednesday, which once sent will place a temporary hold on the funds at least until President-elect Joe Biden’s budget team gets situated.

The rescissions request, which allows the executive branch to try to cancel previously appropriated funds if Congress agrees, is almost twice as large as the $15.2 billion rescissions request he sent to Congress in 2018. At the time that package, which ultimately was blocked in the Senate, was the largest in history.

The new cuts package, described by sources familiar with it on condition of anonymity, is also orders of magnitude bigger than the nearly $4 billion in spending items President Donald Trump critiqued in the $1.4 trillion fiscal 2021 omnibus appropriations package. 

The president tweeted a video a few days before Christmas declaring a number of items to be “wasteful,” calling the larger package a “disgrace,” before ultimately signing it into law on Dec. 27. But the president’s signing statement referenced a package of rescissions he’d be sending up to Capitol Hill, which is just now being finalized a week before Biden’s inauguration.

Trump’s proposed spending cuts largely target foreign aid, with $16 billion to $17 billion in rescissions to State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development programs. That’s far larger than the roughly $2 billion in fiscal 2021 foreign aid spending Trump called out in his Dec. 22 video remarks, suggesting the cuts will target prior-year spending as well. 

The rest of the rescissions totaling $10 billion to $11 billion are aimed at domestic spending programs, with some of the cuts eliminating entire programs that Trump opposes, and others reducing spending that Congress appropriated for programs beyond what Trump sought in his fiscal 2021 budget proposal.

Targets of the rescissions include the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, which provides for the donation of U.S. agricultural commodities and financial and technical assistance to support student and child nutrition.

The proposal also would cut $25 million appropriated for firearms research, and funding for an immigration detention ombudsman opposed by the administration as unnecessary and duplicative.

Another rescission targets $20 million in loan authority for the Presidio Trust, a federal government corporation that manages the Presidio, a 1,500-acre national park in San Francisco. Loans for Presidio, which no longer receives direct appropriations from Congress, were also the subject of year-end wrangling in 2019 between Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

Advanced energy programs also would be cut under the proposal.

Sources familiar with federal budget law say that after Biden is sworn in he can cancel the proposed rescissions, and Democratic leaders dismissed Trump’s plan when he first announced it late last year.

Nevertheless, the rescissions package could serve as a menu of possible spending cuts Congress could make later this year to offset some of the new spending on COVID-19 relief and economic stimulus that Biden and congressional Democrats are pursuing.

Appropriators regularly rescind unspent budget items in order to offset other spending and remain within their spending allocations for the dozen annual appropriations bills. Lawmakers agreed to take $2.3 billion from unspent Energy Department loan program funds, for instance, to help offset increases in veterans health care spending.

Since he was elected president, Trump has proposed steep cuts to foreign aid that both Republicans and Democrats have rejected.

After he submitted his $15.2 billion rescissions request in May 2018, it squeaked through the House on a 210-206 vote and was blocked on a procedural vote in the Senate when the White House could not get enough Republican backing.

The administration the following year sought to put a hold on some $4 billion in foreign assistance funds, but ultimately backed off due to both internal opposition and criticism from top Capitol Hill Republicans. And it was the delay in obligating Ukraine aid that led to Democrats’ first impeachment efforts against Trump.

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