The House passed a cost-cutting measure Thursday that President Donald Trump has personally championed, advancing the first major deficit-reduction bill of his tenure.
Nearly every House Republican voted to support the roughly $15 billion in spending cuts, which target spare cash at a slew of domestic programs, ranging from children’s health insurance to public housing.
The White House has declared the legislation “an important step toward bringing the nation’s fiscal house in order,” part of a yearlong approach to “reduce wasteful and unnecessary spending.” But even supporters of the proposal acknowledge that it is a modest effort, particularly after Republicans in Congress have repeatedly blown past fiscal restraints in pursuit of budget increases and tax cuts.
The bill would result in only about $1 billion in real savings, according to Congress’ budget scorekeeper, because the vast majority of the money couldn’t – or wouldn’t – be spent anyway. And that savings amounts to far less than 1 percent of the funding handed out under Congress’ latest spending bill.
“I think it is a small step, probably more procedural than anything else,” said Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.), who has helped push the bill to the floor over the last month. “At least we’re still trying to have some kind of thought that we’re fiscally conscious here."
Trump is the first president in two decades to use the rescissions tool. Under an obscure federal law, Congress can take up the White House’s plans for reneging spending with a simple majority in the Senate.
The filibuster-proof powers do expire, however. The Senate must approve the bill by June 22 or be forced to recruit Democrats to the effort.
With just 10 working days until that deadline, prospects for the bill remain unclear in the Senate, where every GOP senator will need to support the package.
White House budget director Mick Mulvaney has personally met with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who has raised issues with the cuts to CHIP, to secure her vote. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, another GOP moderate, has not yet said whether she supports the bill.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) has also remained noncommittal to the package despite a slew of changes from the White House.
“We’ll see what the House does. We’ll look at it,” Shelby said Thursday. “I think whatever we rescind, we ought to evaluate it. Is it substantive, or is it more optics, or what?”
The House vote comes a month after the White House first unveiled its sweeping proposal, which proved difficult to sell across the GOP conference.
Multiple Republican lawmakers in the House had refused to support the initial version because it would have eliminated funding to fight the Ebola virus, amid emergence of a new outbreak in Central Africa. Others, mostly from New York and New Jersey, were skittish about eliminating money set aside from Hurricane Sandy recovery work. So the White House agreed this week to make concessions that would jolt the legislative effort back to life.
Officials released a revised package on Tuesday that backs away from cuts to anti-Ebola and hurricane recovery cash, though it maintained $7 billion in cuts to the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Those reductions have opened up a tough line of attack from Democrats, even after nonpartisan budget officials confirmed that the measure would have no effect on the health program for kids.
“$7 billion for sick kids. It’s really unbelievable if you stop and consider it," Rep. Joe Crowley (R-N.Y.) shouted from the House floor Thursday. "Republicans are asking children to pay for their tax cut to the rich."
Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee attacked the GOP’s bill as “nothing more than a PR stunt,” arguing that the Republican tax overhaul cost 1,300 times as much as the so-called rescissions package would save.
Just one day before the bill landed on the House floor, a fight over the children’s health care program erupted in a closed-door House GOP meeting, with multiple lawmakers expressing concerns about the optics of those cuts ahead of the November elections.
The same day, leaders of the conservative Republican Study Committee said in a sit-down with House Speaker Paul Ryan that they wanted a vote on the rescissions package before agreeing to back any spending bills.
“In this conference, you sometimes have to draw a line in the sand,” Walker said Thursday before the vote.
The White House’s revisions didn’t win the votes of every GOP holdout. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), for example, said the latest version was “better,” but voiced concerns with cutbacks to a low-income housing program.
“I commend them for looking at where we can save money. That’s a good thing," Diaz-Balart said. "But now we’re down to probably less than $1 billion, and some policy issues. Cutting money from a program to get people from dependency to self-sufficiency is probably not something we should do."
The $15 billion in cuts marks the largest-ever rescissions package in history and is far less of a lightning rod than Trump himself once imagined. After this spring’s funding battle, the president vowed to use the obscure budget tool to claw back money from the trillion-dollar omnibus bill.
That changed after House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy quietly helped convince White House officials to lower their sights and instead produce a mostly controversy-free bill intended to reclaim unspent funding from past years.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a co-sponsor of the bill, described it as an attempt to “weed the garden.”
“I started out as a skeptic," Cole said. "I actually raised questions about this, because I was afraid it would undo a carefully negotiated deal. It doesn’t do that."
The Trump administration is already planning two more spending cutbacks, including one that would target money laid out under the fiscal 2018 spending package. The second proposal is expected before the midterm elections.
Fiscal hawks, like those at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, are cautioning House Republicans not to take a victory lap on debt reduction after the rescissions bill.
“Rescissions are only a very small step forward in restraining spending,” the group wrote in a statement Thursday.
Adam Cancryn contributed to this report.
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