Some Question Move to Shift Funds to Hurricane Aid
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Hurricane Katrina started a nationwide debate about the poor, yet that same disaster is now leading to calls for the government to cut spending on the poor. As Congress returns to work today, some lawmakers want deeper reductions than they were already planning for programs like Medicaid and food stamps. Other domestic programs would also be cut. It's all designed to offset the cost of hurricane relief. Some lawmakers are uncomfortable with how this looks; taking money from some poor people to give it to others, even as tax cuts go forward. NPR's Julie Rovner reports this morning.
JULIE ROVNER reporting:
In his prime-time speech from New Orleans last month, vowing to help rebuild the Gulf Coast, President Bush specifically acknowledged the televised scenes of tens of thousands of poor Americans who were left behind in the flooded city.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.
ROVNER: But critics, including some in his own party, say the president is doing exactly the opposite, taking steps that would make the poor poorer. Republican Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, for example was enraged at the White House for blocking a bipartisan bill that would temporarily expand health coverage for the poor under Medicaid. But the administration is listening to House conservatives who want deeper spending cuts, including a 2 percent across-the-board reduction in virtually all domestic spending. Tennessee Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn is a member of the conservative Republican Study Conference.
Congresswoman MARSHA BLACKBURN (Republican, Tennessee): One of the things that the American people have told us repeatedly, this spending has to be controlled.
ROVNER: But others say the cuts now being considered will result in major reductions to programs that need more money, not less, like home heating assistance in the face of rising energy prices. Robert Greenstein is executive director of the liberal think tank, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He says the turnaround in Washington's attitude toward poverty has been breathtaking.
Mr. ROBERT GREENSTEIN (Executive Director, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities): A month after the president stood in front of the cathedral in New Orleans and said we needed bold action on poverty, we are heading towards significant cuts in virtually every non-entitlement program that affects low-income people and some of the most basic entitlement programs, like Medicaid and food stamps, that help these people, while allowing the average tax cut for millionaires to go from $100,000 a year to $120,000 a year.
ROVNER: Those cuts won't come without a fight, however. The coalition of liberal groups that formed earlier this year to resist changes to Social Security is now taking on the budget cuts. Cara Morris is spokeswoman for the new Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities. She says the group is targeting members in the middle.
Ms. CARA MORRIS (Spokeswoman, Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities): As these members of Congress in our target states choose to follow the Republican leadership's effort to give these new tax breaks to the wealthy and cut vital public service programs, they will do so at their own peril. We'll be on the front lines of the fight and we'll be on the steps of their offices, basically, over the next six weeks. When they turn around, they'll see us.
ROVNER: Robert Greenstein, of the Center on Budget, says Republicans may be tacking to the right to assuage an angry conservative base just as Democrats are tacking to the left. But he says cuts of the magnitude being considered could well alienate the majority of Americans in the middle of the political spectrum.
Mr. GREENSTEIN: And I think the biggest political and policy question for the coming weeks in Washington here is how do moderate Republican members of Congress respond? There are not enough hard right Republican members of Congress to pass these cuts on their own. To some degree the moderate Republican members hold the balance of power.
ROVNER: Delaware Republican Michael Castle leads a group of those moderates called the Republican Main Street Partnership. He says he wants to offset new spending, but...
Mr. MICHAEL CASTLE (Republican Main Street Partnership): Unfortunately, we've created this culture of everybody expects everything that's ever created to continue to be there and to grow. And that's just simply not the case.
ROVNER: But Castle wants to make spending reductions with everything on the table, including tax cuts and defense and homeland security spending; something conservatives and the White House oppose.
Mr. CASTLE: My concern is that we are going to pick on just certain programs, such as Medicaid or other programs that would hurt just the poor. That would be a mistake. I think we need to have a much more balanced approach than that.
ROVNER: So far, Republicans have argued over the budget mostly behind closed doors, but with the time near for final decisions, this week the fight goes public. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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