House GOP eager to slash much more

By Matt Viser and Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / February 15, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The austerity plan President Obama outlined yesterday for 2012 does not go nearly far enough to satisfy House Republicans, who seek deeper, more immediate cuts that could greatly affect New Englanders.

The GOP favors reducing the Environmental Protection Agency budget by 29 percent, hitting clean-water funding particularly hard. Education programs such as Pell grants for middle- and low-income college students would be reduced..

Funding would be eliminated altogether for several programs, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and AmeriCorps, the national service group. Both organizations have deep roots in the Boston area, with WBUR and WGBH considered cultural jewels and AmeriCorps being largely modeled after City Year in Boston and then developed nationwide with key support from the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

Those cuts are included in the budget that the House will vote on this week to fund the remainder of the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. Overall, Republicans want to trim $61 billion from last year’s spending.

In several weeks, House Republicans will release a separate plan that, like Obama’s, addresses next fiscal year. Republicans have not specified what cuts they plan to make next year, but their proposed cuts for the remainder of this year are considered a guidepost.

The differing budgetary priorities are setting up a tectonic battle over federal spending between a new Republican House majority and a Senate and White House controlled by Democrats.

Republicans say government has grown too large in recent years and must be reduced in a way that improves the economy and reduces the tax burden.

“Our goal is to listen to the American people and liberate our economy from the shackles of debt, over-taxation, and big government,’’ said House Speaker John Boehner.

Any Republican budget proposal is unlikely to be approved wholesale, given that Democrats still control the Senate and the White House. But several elements of the GOP plan would probably make it into the final compromise with the Senate.

Other GOP-backed cuts under consideration for this year would include $2.5 billion less for rail projects, which would slow plans for expansion of several lines in the Northeast. A program to provide nutritional support for women and infants — known as WIC — would be cut by $747 million, and $694 million would be cut from funding for schools that serve low-income students. The legislation would also bar funding for an overseer to help implement Obama’s health care law.

Many of those cuts would be felt throughout Massachusetts, whose congressional delegation has proven adept at securing federal funding.

“The president is using a scalpel,’’ Mayor Thomas M. Menino said yesterday. “The House Republicans are using a hacksaw.’’

Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat, urged continued funding of public broadcasting. “In a media landscape cluttered with lowest-common denominator content, CPB creates an oasis where Big Bird and friends can thrive, children can access educational shows that reinforce classroom lessons, and Americans around the country can find the top-caliber programming that expands their knowledge while entertaining and informing their everyday lives,’’ he said in a statement.

Representative Barney Frank, a Newton Democrat, said the GOP proposal could also hamper Wall Street regulators, who have more responsibility than ever under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law passed by Congress last year.

The GOP has called for cuts to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. If the cuts are enforced, Frank said, “the Securities and Exchange Commission will not be able to do [the job] the law gave them to do, which is protecting investors.’’

Republicans are intent on extending this week’s battle into the 2012 elections.

The National Republican Congressional Committee yesterday sent out dozens of press releases — heavy with red text — that attacked Democrats they consider vulnerable, including two from Massachusetts — William Keating, of Quincy, and Niki Tsongas, of Lowell.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell pummeled Obama’s proposal as “a patronizing plan,’’ and then ridiculed his pitch to invest in high-speed rail and clean energy. “It’s a plan that says fulfilling the president’s vision of a future of trains and windmills is more important than a balanced checkbook,’’ McConnell said on the Senate floor.

Yet, like the president, Republicans have so far concentrated their cuts on domestic discretionary spending, shying away from deep cuts in the large — and largely sacrosanct — sections of the budget: national defense and entitlement programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security.

Republicans have also ruled out tax increases.

Such an approach ties the hands of budget cutters.

“You can’t get blood from a rock,’’ said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog. “At some point, they’re going to run out of how much they can cut.’’

Representative Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Budget Committee, would not say yesterday whether the House budget for fiscal year 2012 would deal with entitlement changes, and offered no details on what types of cuts they would make.

House Republicans will release their spending plan this spring, probably in April.

Still, debate on the national debt and spending cuts indicates just how much the political winds have shifted in Washington, with both Democrats and Republicans arguing not over the spending priorities, but over how much should be cut.

“We’re having a great debate in Congress about how much spending should be cut,’’ Ryan said. “How cool is that?’’

Andrew Ryan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at