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Obama trims budget, but less than Bush

- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 7, 2009

UPDATED:

President Obama announced fewer budget cuts and for a lesser dollar amount than President George W. Bush did in his final budget - and is counting on being able to eliminate some programs that his predecessor repeatedly tried, but failed, to slash.

Obama administration officials said they're convinced they'll have more luck eliminating programs such as Even Start, an early childhood education program that Mr. Bush put on the chopping block year after year but which both Democrats and Republicans in Congress refused to cut.

On Thursday Mr. Obama called for reducing or eliminating 121 programs for $17 billion in savings in fiscal 2010, including many defense cuts the administration already announced.

"None of this is going to be easy and no one ever pretended that it would be, but we are trying to do the right thing here and I think the context has significantly changed," said a senior administration official whom the White House allowed to brief reporters early on the condition of anonymity.

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The budget also takes care of some touchy issues. Mr. Obama included $12.2 million for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships Program with the intention of allowing students enrolled in the program to remain in it until they graduate. However, no new students will be granted scholarships.

Mr. Obama's cuts amount to less than half of 1 percent of the $3.5 trillion budget Congress approved for 2010. About half of the $17 billion in cuts are from defense programs, including many that already have been announced.

The Obama administration said it will have better luck in cutting than the Bush White House did because of a perceived change in attitude in Congress - but it's almost certainly a false hope, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the former head of the Congressional Budget Office who was a top campaign official for Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign last year.

He said he was convinced Congress would get serious about belt-tightening in 2003, soon after Congress added hundreds of millions of dollars in debt by adding a prescription drug program to Medicare.

"The party never ended. I was wrong," Mr. Holtz-Eakin said.

He said in recent years that the president regularly has proposed between $15 billion and $20 billion in budget cuts, and Congress promptly disregards most of them.

"We know how this works," he said. "The administration sends this up; Congress says 'Thank you very much' and doesn't immediately begin working on them." He said if Congress does eventually find some cuts it's willing to accept, the money is redirected toward other programs, and doesn't produce any savings for taxpayers.

During his tenure, Mr. Bush also annually announced cuts. The list would carry over year after year as Congress, which zealously guards its spending powers, rejected most of the proposals.

Mr. Bush's fiscal 2009 list included reducing or eliminating 151 discretionary spending programs, over which Congress has the most control, for a savings of $18 billion.

By contrast, of Mr. Obama's $17 billion in cuts only $11.5 billion comes from discretionary programs, with the rest coming from entitlement spending, which is traditionally tougher to reduce.

Mr. Obama released a broad 2010 budget outline in February and Congress already has passed its version. The document Mr. Obama released Thursday provides a request for funding every program in the federal government.

Some of those details emerged late Wednesday as the administration briefed members of Congress and key interest groups.

Homeland security is poised to see a substantial increase as the administration looks to shore up border security, target employers who hire illegal immigrants and combat the potential for spillover violence from Mexico, said several people briefed on the spending.

But the Associated Press reported that one cut will come from the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, which gives money to states to help defray the cost of incarcerating illegal immigrants who commit crimes. That program is popular with border state lawmakers of both parties, who say the federal government must foot the bill for failing to enforce its borders.

That's not the only likely non-starter.

Mr. Obama called for cutting the Even Start literacy program for a savings of $66 million. He said the program has been performed "badly" and is not particularly efficient, with half the program's costs going to overhead.

"The evidence is unfortunately clear. This specific early childhood education program does not work very well," the administration official told reporters.

But Mr. Bush repeatedly put the program on his list of cuts, only to see Congress fund it year after year, though at reduced levels. It has powerful allies, including minority rights groups and top Democratic members of the education and spending committees.

The four other specific cuts the administration official detailed were:

• Ending payments to states for cleanup of abandoned mines that already have been cleaned up, for a reduction of $142 million.

• Closing the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation, for a savings of $1 million. The administration says the foundation, which pays for teams of students from eight middle schools to travel to Disney World for a science competition, spent about 80 percent of its funding on overhead.

• Eliminating the position of education attache to UNESCO that the government keeps in Paris, at a cost of $632,000 a year.

• Ending the LORAN-C program, a long-range radio navigation system that the government says is obsolete with the widespread use of global positioning satellites. Cutting the program would save $142 million.

• Gary Emerling contributed to this report.

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