Congress Seeks Budget Cuts to Fund Katrina Recovery
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On Capitol Hill Republicans are trying to finish a budget for the new fiscal year, and they're having to deal with divisions within their own ranks. At the center of their differences: Hurricane Katrina and the tens of billions of dollars going to relieve and rebuild the Gulf Coast region. Conservatives want to find budget cuts to offset that spending, but party leaders are finding it difficult to decide which programs to cut and how to get GOP moderates to vote for them. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.
ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:
The federal budget is always the result of a sticky web of negotiations between the parties and within the parties about how much to fund which federal departments and programs. Usually after most of them have held their noses and voted aye, it's a done deal with set amounts for spending and set amounts for cuts, but not this year. For the first time since 1977, Congress has reopened the budget after the start of the fiscal year. Why? Katrina, says California Republican David Dreier.
Representative DAVID DREIER (Republican, California): One silver lining in the horribly dark cloud of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is the fact that we have had a renewed focus all the way across the spectrum within the Republican conference to looking for ways in which we can reduce spending and keep our economy growing.
SEABROOK: Congress has already approved more than $60 billion for the Gulf Coast region, and most people say the White House will ask for tens of billions more. But all of this new federal spending has made one group of Republicans particularly uncomfortable: conservatives. The Republican Study Committee, as the conservative caucus calls itself, is headed by Indiana's Mike Pence. There are close to a hundred in the group, enough to swing a vote if conservatives decide to go against Republican leaders. They've used that power in recent weeks to force the White House and Republican leaders to change their tune from `no new budget cuts this year' to `reopen the budget.' Today Pence tried to convince reporters that Republicans are not divided on this issue.
Representative MIKE PENCE (Republican, Indiana): I'm really here to say that House Republicans are united in our commitment to respond to Hurricane Katrina with compassion, generosity and fiscal discipline.
SEABROOK: Problem is Republican leaders are having a hard time convincing many in their party that deeper cuts in health care for the poor, winter heating oil assistance, college student loans and other programs are a good idea right now. Conservatives also want to completely eliminate almost a hundred federal programs and cut the entire budget, except the Pentagon, by 2 percent. This will be tough for moderate Republicans to swallow. And Democrats are 100 percent united against it, according to Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.
Representative STENY HOYER (Democrat, Maryland; Minority Whip): In closing, let me say how ironic I believe it to be that all of the Republican conservatives in the Congress of the United States have been prepared over the last two and a half years to spend billions and billions and billions in Baghdad.
SEABROOK: But when it comes to the people of the Gulf Coast, Hoyer said, conservatives say the money isn't there. Democrats also pointed to the more than $100 billion worth of new tax cuts that are also part of the Republican plan, saying those should be eliminated before any programs for the poor. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said this is just another example of what she called a `culture of corruption and cronyism in the Republican Party.'
Representative NANCY PELOSI (Minority Leader, Democrat, California): When they take the budget and make it a vehicle for giving tax breaks to their special interest friends and the wealthiest people in America at the expense of the middle class under the guise of helping the victims of Katrina, that's just not on the level.
SEABROOK: Pelosi said she didn't think moderate Republicans would, quote, "walk the plank" for their leaders by voting for this budget. And there's enough doubt among Republicans at this point that the new budget may not pass tomorrow as planned. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.