A Republican-controlled House panel moved Thursday to protect the Department of Homeland Security from the big cuts facing other domestic agencies under the party's budget slashing plan.
The move came as the Appropriations Committee leadership privately circulated plans to drastically reduce spending for labor, education and health programs, foreign and housing aid, the Environmental Protection Agency and transportation.
The Pentagon would be spared and a program that provides food aid to poor pregnant women and their babies is likely to escape cuts, but the effects on most agencies would be severe - in the unlikely event the recommendations were to make their way into law over the protests of President Barack Obama and Democrats.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., appears to be embarking on a strategy to advance a handful of the annual spending bills by funding them at levels closer to Obama's budget than the tea party budget that passed the House in March. GOP conservatives have balked at such moves in the past, saying they're a trick aimed at boosting spending, but some Democrats seem willing to give Rogers the benefit of the doubt.
Rogers' strategy was on display earlier Thursday as an Appropriations subcommittee moved to beef up the Border patrol and grants to local governments for first responders and training to disarm bombs. Its work came a day after another panel increased funding for politically sacrosanct programs for veterans.
Thursday's measure won support from Democrats. In many areas Republicans boosted spending above Obama's budget request.
Earlier this year, tea party forces in the GOP-controlled House pushed through a budget that would force nondefense programs to bear cuts more than $90 billion below levels called for in a 2011 budget pact. The GOP House and Democratic-controlled Senate remain at odds over the budget, including the amount for agency operating budgets.
At issue are the 12 annual bills funding the day-to-day budgets of Cabinet agencies. The Appropriations panel is moving ahead even though Democrats and Republicans are $92 billion apart on the overall pot of money to dedicate to agency operating budgets. Democrats are pushing a $1.058 trillion figure; Republicans are backing a $966 billion level that assumes unpopular across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration are left in place. The cuts are the result of Washington's inability to follow up a 2011 budget agreement with additional deficit cuts.
In addition, to placate GOP defense hawks, party leaders have moved to replace defense cuts by forcing domestic programs to take even deeper cuts.
For instance, programs in the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education departments that are funded by the largest domestic spending bill would bear cuts of about one-fifth compared to current monies.
"The disinvestment proposed for health, education and labor programs reveal that the majority believes that poor people, kids, college students, sick people, the unemployed and the disabled should just fend for themselves," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.
The old-school, pragmatic Republicans atop the Appropriations panel are skeptical that the party's budget plan is workable but with no broader deal in sight they are moving ahead with their bills anyway. The first two measures advancing this week, however, basically ignore the strictures of the GOP budget assembled by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Democrats warned earlier Thursday that generously funding the homeland security and veterans' budgets will mean even sharper cuts to programs like education, medical research, transportation and clean energy.
"The first few bills we're dealing with are pretty close to the president's request," said the panel's top Democrat Rep. Nita Lowey of New York. "Which means not much pickings left for the rest of the bills."
The Appropriations chairman says he's hopeful of getting more money to work with later.
"Obviously we are severely short on our allocation," Rogers said. "It very well could be that during the year there could be a replacement for sequestration and/or a budget deal that would give us more."
The homeland security measure would put the Border Patrol on a path to hire 1,600 additional agents, replace cuts sought by Obama to grants for state and local governments, boost cyber security spending and rejects Obama-sought cuts to the Coast Guard.