Six months after the congressional supercommittee failed to come to a long-term deal on federal spending, House Republicans reignited the debate Thursday by passing legislation that would stop looming defense cuts and instead cut hundreds of billions of dollars from entitlement programs.
The legislation, passed on a 218-199 vote, is unlikely to advance beyond the House. The Senate hasn’t shown any interest in holding a budget debate this year, and the White House said President Obama likely would veto the House bill if it reaches his desk.
But it serves as a marker in a debate that all sides expect to play out as the end-of-the-year deadline for the defense cuts grows nearer.
“This is a small step in the right direction,” said Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee and the man who wrote the outlines of the GOP plan. He said Republicans should be proud they are using the budget process to try to cut spending, after years in which it was used to pass the president’s health care initiative or, under Republicans in the past decade, to push through tax cuts.
The defense cuts were set into motion by last year’s debt deal, which allowed the president to raise the government’s borrowing limit but called for spending cuts to go along with the increase. The supercommittee, a bipartisan group of lawmakers from both chambers, was supposed to try to replace the automatic cuts, known as sequesters, with more careful trims, but failed — leaving the ax to fall at the end of this year.
Mr. Obama and both parties on Capitol Hill say they want to avoid the sequesters, but have shown no ability to find common ground.
On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, signaled that Democrats might prefer the automatic cuts take effect rather than go the route of the House.
“Is the sequester the best way to achieve that balance? Absolutely not. But Republicans refuse to consider a more reasonable approach,” Mr. Reid said. “And Democrats won’t agree to a one-sided solution that lets the superwealthy off the hook while forcing the middle class, and those in greatest need, to bear all the hardship.”
House Republicans’ bill even took hits from taxpayer watchdogs. Taxpayers for Common Sense said shifting all of the defense cuts to domestic programs was “an attempt to squirm out of their commitment” to serious deficit reduction.
Still, the House bill underscores the difficulties that lie ahead for Congress. In addition to the automatic spending cuts, the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are slated to expire and a number of other popular spending provisions need to be extended.
The debt deal’s automatic cuts hit defense programs heaviest, but are spread across much of the budget — though Social Security, Medicaid and some other accounts were exempted.
Republicans are trying to erase the defense cuts without raising taxes or eliminating tax breaks — which means they have had to cut heavily from domestic spending programs.
Among the trims were the Prevention and Public Health Fund in Mr. Obama’s health care law, reducing the number of children required to be covered under the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and cutting billions of dollars out of the food-stamp program.
Mr. Ryan said his goal was to reform the programs so they provide better services to those who qualify. He said success should be measured not by how many people are added to government aid, but by how many people can be helped to get off of government-assistance rolls.
The GOP said cutting those was preferable to reducing the military, which would have to lose 200,000 troops, to its lowest level of manpower since before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The cuts also would cause the Navy to drop below 230 ships, a level it hasn’t seen in a century and would result in the smallest fleet in the history of the Air Force.
The White House also has called those defense cuts “destructive,” but its own plan to avoid them — Mr. Obama’s budget, submitted in February — has gone nowhere. The House defeated it by a vote of 414-0.
Still, the White House vowed to veto the GOP’s bill, saying it would hurt the poor and needy.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said Mr. Obama has no viable alternative.
“My question for President Obama is, ‘Where is your plan to stop these automatic cuts from hollowing out our defenses?’ ” Mr. Boehner said.
In the vote, 16 Republicans joined 183 Democrats in opposing the legislation. They were a mixture of conservatives who thought the legislation still allowed too much spending and more moderate members of the GOP who objected to some of the cuts called for in the bill.
“Budgets need to be tough, but they also need to be fair,” said Rep. Charles F. Bass, New Hampshire Republican. “When attempts are made to address agricultural spending by eliminating fraud in the food-stamp program, but do not even begin to address the billions of dollars in direct subsidies to factory farms — that is not right.”