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Thursday, September 22, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Katrina budget offsets a challenge

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — As Congress looks for budget cuts to pay for Hurricane Katrina, lawmakers are facing the fact that many projects on the chopping block are dear to their constituents.

House conservatives yesterday outlined nearly 100 government programs that they want to slash to pay for the potential $200 billion cost of rebuilding the Gulf Coast. But House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., shot down two of the list's big-ticket items: repealing the 6,000 special projects, worth $24 billion, in the recently passed highway bill, and delaying the introduction of the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, due to take effect in January, for a $31 billion savings.

"We are willing to look at offsets, if there are viable offsets," Hastert said. However, he said: "I don't think it would be prudent at this point to say we are going to stop our Medicare program. We need to have that. It is something seniors across the county look forward to."

Nor was he keen to touch the new transportation funding package. "It is exactly the highway bill we need," Hastert said.

Congress already has approved $62 billion in emergency aid to the Gulf region, and the House and Senate yesterday sent to President Bush $6.1 billion in Katrina-related tax breaks to help individuals and businesses recover from the storm.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, on Tuesday called holding back the Medicare proposal "a nonstarter," noting that Bush opposed the idea, too.

DeLay said reopening the highway bill "is still an option, and we are going to look at that as many others," but added that the maneuver could backfire, because lawmakers could try to wedge in even more perks.

Other cuts proposed by House conservatives include slicing $50 billion from Medicaid over five years and an additional $80 billion over five years from Medicare. Farm payments would be reduced and graduate student loans no longer would be subsidized. Page after page of the proposal, dubbed "Operation Offsets," details cuts to foreign aid, military spending and corporate subsidies.

If previous budget battles are any guide, few of the ideas stand much chance of being enacted. As for the transportation bill, it may be loaded with pork, but it is pork that was inserted by congressional leaders.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group, found $500 million in Hastert-sponsored transportation projects in the measure. The money is mainly going to widen roads in Hastert's suburban Chicago district, but it also will fund a bicycle path and a sidewalk.

The group reported that DeLay's Houston district collected nearly $440 million for local projects, while the leader of the House conservatives, Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., netted $16 million to fund special projects in his district.

The watchdogs are skeptical that Congress could take back the entire $24 billion in individual highway projects. About $14 billion in perks is embedded in individual state formulas, making them difficult to remove. But the remaining $10 billion "can and should be cut immediately by Congress," Taxpayers for Common Sense urged in a statement.

Washington Post reporter Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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