Republicans who control the House want to block some $55 billion worth of automatic cuts to the Pentagon budget next year. Instead, they want to cut funding for social programs such as food stamps, Medicaid and Meals on Wheels. It's a choice that has been framed as guns versus butter, and this time, guns are expected to win.
The Obama administration has threatened to veto the legislation, which the House votes on Thursday. But the president is willing to leave the Pentagon cuts in place for now, in hopes of bringing Republicans back to the bargaining table.
The Pentagon cuts are the "trigger" that almost nobody wants to pull. Under last year's deficit-cutting agreement, if lawmakers don't agree on how to trim $1.2 trillion in red ink, across-the-board cuts are triggered automatically, with 50 percent coming from the defense budget.
House Republicans are trying to defuse that trigger.
Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan says instead of military spending, the government should cut social programs that he describes as bloated and inefficient.
"Taxpayers deserve better than to see their money wasted on duplicative programs that never simply end because ending them would take turf away from some bureaucracy," Ryan says.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the GOP move would leave 1.8 million people without food stamps. Hundreds of thousands of children would lose health insurance and school lunches.
Texas Democrat Lloyd Doggett says there would be less money for vaccinations, prenatal care and quality nursing homes for seniors.
"It's shifting all the cost onto the most vulnerable people that don't have a strong enough lobbyist to stand up for themselves, and I think it is a terrible wrong," Doggett says.
Republicans on the Budget Committee approved the cuts to social programs, setting up Thursday's vote in the full House. Texas Rep. Bill Flores defended the cuts in the name of fiscal responsibility.
"We talk about values. Deficit spending is not a value, ladies and gentlemen. Deficit spending is what's going to bankrupt the future for the children that you say you care so much about," Flores says.
But as Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen points out, Thursday's vote isn't really about the size of the deficit. It's just about who bears the cost of government spending cuts: the military or the needy.
"The issue is not whether we should implement a plan to reduce the deficit in a steady, credible and predictable way," Van Hollen says. "We should. The issue is how should we do it?"
Sequestration A 'Crazy Process'
The Obama administration isn't eager to see bigger cuts to either the Pentagon or the safety net. The Defense Department is already scheduled to cut nearly half a trillion dollars in spending over the next decade. And Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warns that another half-trillion in automatic cuts — known as sequestration — would be dangerous.
"Sequestration is a crazy process that would do untold damage to our national defense," Panetta says. "It's a mechanism that would do blindsided cuts across the board and would really hollow out the force."
Obama doesn't like the defense cuts any better. But he says that's the point. He told lawmakers last November that the automatic cuts are designed to be painful, in order to force Congress to come up with a better, more balanced deficit plan. And he's not about to let lawmakers off the hook.
"My message to them is simple: No. I will veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts to domestic and defense spending. There will be no easy off-ramps on this one," the president said.
Ultimately, Obama wants a deficit plan that includes some additional tax revenue, along with spending cuts. Until then, he's not taking his finger off the trigger, nor allowing Republicans to aim in a different direction.
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