Volatile House nears passage of budget bill

Debate reaches caustic high over $61b cut

By Theo Emery
Globe Staff / February 19, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The Tea Party movement, propelled by last fall’s elections, reached an acrimonious apex yesterday as the Republican-controlled House neared passage of a vast budget-cutting measure that would also bar the Environmental Protection Agency from spending money to control global warming gases.

With tempers flaring on the House floor and Republican leaders continuing to clash with Democrats over cuts, the prospects of a deadlock over the measure to fund government through September rose substantially, and along with it the specter of a shutdown of federal government services.

That looming budget showdown is the result of resurgent conservative Republicans intent on putting their campaign promise to shrink government into action and of recalcitrant Democrats who say the $61 billion in cuts are draconian and threaten a stuttering economic recovery. After four marathon days of debate this week — one session reached 3 a.m. — and plowing through hundreds of amendments, House leaders expect a vote on the measure by today.

The menu of affected programs is lengthy and varied. Funding for public broadcasting, Planned Parenthood, the alternative engine for the Pentagon’s next-generation fighter jet, and the AmeriCorps national service program would be eliminated. Cuts would target grants and loans on dozens of programs, from early-childhood education to clean-water projects.

“The result would be cutbacks and potential disruptions in services ranging from child care to various basic services that local government provide,’’ said Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning organization in Washington.

Republicans acknowledge such cuts are not without pain, but say the massive national deficit demands quick, decisive action.

The vote yesterday restricting the Environmental Protection Agency is the latest salvo in the Republican effort to halt attempts to regulate carbon emissions, which scientists blame for global warming. The agency had been reluctant to use its powers in this area until a 2007 Supreme Court decision — brought by the state of Massachusetts on behalf of other states and groups — compelled it to address the problem.

“Republicans want to turn EPA into every polluters’ ally,’’ said Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Malden who had led the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming until the Republican takeover of the House.

“That’s their goal,’’ he said. “We are going to have a historic fight this year. The Republicans are wrong in thinking that all these environmental laws don’t have overwhelming public support.’’

But Republicans argued that regulating carbon dioxide could devastate parts of the economy.

“If you regulate CO2 under the Clean Air Act you are going to destroy millions of jobs, cost hundreds of billions of dollars without any real economic analysis to show that it is a harm,’’ said Joe Barton, a Texas Republican.

The Republicans’ spending plan would replace a temporary budget measure that expires on March 4, but it has little chance of Senate approval. As that deadline approaches, both sides accused the other of brinkmanship by dragging the budget process toward a standstill.

Tea Party-backed Republicans have been demanding that extensive cuts be part of any spending measure, even at the considerable cost of a government shutdown, which could throw tens of thousands of people out of work temporarily and delay such government benefits as Social Security checks. Some lawmakers, however, predict that Congress will avoid a government shutdown by passing another short-term spending measure.

Steve King, an Iowa Republican and member of the Tea Party Caucus, acknowledged that while Congress will probably pass a temporary measure to keep the government open, the threat of a shutdown is forcing both sides to keep the process moving.

“If there was no threat of that, then there probably wouldn’t be a way to get things resolved,’’ he said.

Barney Frank, a Newton Democrat, said he feared that the budget wrangling was moving in the direction of a shutdown. The situation is different today than the last shutdowns, which occurred in the mid-1990s, because of the country’s military engagements overseas.

“How do you shut the government?’’ Frank said. “How do you not fund people in combat situations? What are you saying to the enemy? I’m afraid the attitude here is that this might happen.’’

Much of the concern over a shutdown stems from comments Thursday by Speaker John Boehner, Republican of Ohio. Boehner dismissed the possibility of passing a short-term spending measure without any cuts.

With Congress on recess next week and just a few work days remaining until March 4, it will be difficult to head off a shutdown, Greenstein said.

“As a result of this stance that House Republicans are taking, I think the chances of a shutdown, which I thought were small before, are now above 50-50,’’ he said.

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