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Today the House considers the old choice that used to be framed as guns or butter. Guns are expected to win, at least for now. Republicans who control the House want to block some $55 billion worth of automatic cuts to the Pentagon budget next year. A budget agreement requires them to cut something, though, so lawmakers want to cut funding for social programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, and Meals on Wheels.
President Obama's administration has threatened to veto. The president is willing to leave the Pentagon cuts in place for now in hopes of a better deal. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The Pentagon cuts are the trigger that almost nobody wants to pull. Under last year's deficit-cutting agreement, if lawmakers don't agree on how to trim $1.2 trillion dollars in red ink, across the board cuts are triggered automatically, with 50 percent coming from the Defense budget.
House Republicans are trying to defuse that trigger. Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan says instead of military spending, the government should cut social programs that he describes as bloated and inefficient.
CONGRESSMAN PAUL RYAN: Taxpayers deserve better than to see their money wasted on duplicative programs that never simply end because ending them would take turf away from some bureaucracy.
HORSLEY: According to the Congressional Budget Office, the GOP move would leave 1.8 million people without food stamps. Hundreds of thousands of children would lose health insurance and school lunches. Texas Democrat Lloyd Doggett says there would be less money for vaccinations, pre-natal care and quality nursing homes for seniors.
CONGRESSMAN LLOYD DOGGETT: It's shifting all of the cost onto the most vulnerable people that don't have the strong enough lobbyist to stand up for themselves, and I think it is a terrible wrong.
HORSLEY: Republicans on the Budget Committee approved the cuts to social programs, setting up today's vote in the full House. Texas Congressman Bill Flores defended the cuts in the name of fiscal responsibility.
CONGRESSMAN BILL FLORES: We talk about values. Deficit spending is not a value, ladies and gentlemen. Deficit spending is what's going to bankrupt the future for the children that you say you care so much about.
HORSLEY: But as Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen points out, today's vote is not really about the size of the deficit. It just about who bears the cost of government spending cuts - the military or the needy.
CONGRESSMAN CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: The issue is not whether we should implement a plan to reduce the deficit in a steady, credible and predictable way. We should. The question is how do we do it?
HORSLEY: The Obama administration isn't eager to see bigger cuts to either the Pentagon or the safety net. The Defense Department's already scheduled to cut nearly half a trillion dollars in spending over the next decade. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warns adding another half-trillion in automatic cuts - known as sequestration - would be dangerous.
SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Sequestration is a crazy process that would do untold damage to our national defense. It's a mechanism that would do, you know, just blindsided cuts across the board and would really hollow out the force.
HORSLEY: President Obama doesn't like the defense cuts any better. But he says that's the point. He told lawmakers last November, the automatic cuts are designed to be painful, in order to force Congress to come up with a better, more balanced deficit plan. He's not about to let lawmakers off the hook.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My message to them is simple. No. I will veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts to domestic and defense spending. There will be no easy off-ramps on this one.
HORSLEY: Ultimately, Mr. Obama wants a deficit plan that includes some additional tax revenue along with the spending cuts. Till then, he's not taking his finger off the trigger, nor allowing Republicans to aim in a different direction.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.
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