Mass. braces for punch of spending cuts bill

Trims of $38b vex advocates for the poor

By Theo Emery
Globe Staff / April 14, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Every Friday, Dottie Peterson opens the door to the food pantry she runs at the Brockton Assembly of God church and encounters families, children in tow, lined up outside to pick up bags of free food.

With Congress planning to begin voting today on a plan that strips hundreds of millions of dollars from a child nutrition program, Peterson, 49, says she fears the need for such pantries will only soar.

Providers of services for the poor, homeless, and elderly are bracing for the effects in their neighborhoods of the $38 billion in spending cuts negotiated in a dramatic deal last week that prevented the government from running out of money. Despite some ardent opposition from both conservatives and liberals, House leaders expect lawmakers will pass the spending package today, followed by a vote in the Senate.

Along with the cuts in the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, money for job training, home heating aid for struggling homeowners, and community policing grants would be cut.

Although lawmakers and program administrators were not able to provide precise figures on how much of a hit Massachusetts agencies would take, the level of anxiety among those on the front lines caring for the poor is high.

The federal government spent $7.2 billion across the country on the WIC nutrition program last fiscal year, and $92 million of that went to Massachusetts, according to Representative Edward Markey’s office. The budget deal would cut $504 million — or about 7 percent — from the program.

“Any cuts are going to have a drastic impact on the people who need the most help,’’ said Carol Tienken, chief operating officer of the Greater Boston Food Bank.

Many lawmakers across the political spectrum are also unhappy with the cuts, for a range of reasons. At least three Democratic members of the Massachusetts delegation — Markey of Malden, Barney Frank of Newton, and James P. McGovern of Worcester — say they plan to vote against it.

“I don’t think we should be increasing defense spending’’ in the budget bill, Markey said. “If we’re asking Grandma to tighten her belt, we should ask the Defense Department to tighten their belt.’’

Some conservatives and Republican deficit hawks also plan to vote against it, but for far different reasons. Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, said he is leaning toward a no vote because the cuts are largely to appropriated funds that would never have been spent.

Flake is also upset that some programs targeted by House Republicans escaped cuts.

“Some of us were disappointed we didn’t start with a higher number,’’ he said. “We knew that we’d compromise in the middle, so we should have started with $100 billion.’’

Both senators from Massachusetts said they would support the deal. “Now is the time for belt-tightening and shared sacrifice,’’ said Scott Brown, a Republican who had previously supported the Republicans plan to slice $61 billion, then decried several of the specific cuts. “We are finally moving in the right direction to rein in out-of-control spending and debt.’’

Democrat John F. Kerry said he would vote for the bill, but he decried the contentious, high-wire process that led to it.

Representative Louis Gohmert, a Texas Republican with strong support from the Tea Party movement, said he does not share the confidence of congressional leaders that the deal will pass. He said disenchantment has grown among Republicans over the deal.

“The more people have found out, the more concerned they are,’’ he said. “They’re not keeping even a third of what we said we would do.’’ Asked if it would pass, he responded: “I don’t know.’’

Despite the unhappiness over the bill, few want to see the federal government shut down, which would have been the result had House Republicans, Senate Democrats, and President Obama not reached the 11th-hour pact Friday night to fund the government through September.

Aides worked through the weekend on the bill, which emerged early Tuesday morning. Both the House and Senate must pass the budget to again avoid a partial government shutdown.

While few on Capitol Hill fully embrace the package of cuts and many are dickering over the math used in reaching $38 billion, the deal is expected to pass.

For Peterson, the calculus is simple: Cuts to the children nutrition program mean more hungry kids at the food pantry’s door.

“I know they have to make cuts, but it’s the kids that are going to suffer,’’ she said. “I don’t know. It’s going to be bad.’’