In a statement released after the Senate approved a resolution setting the parameters for the 2004 budget, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney singled out the Senate’s 51-48 vote to cut Bush’s tax cut for the rich from $736 billion to $350 billion as one of a “handful of victories” for working families won during the Senate’s debate on the measure. He was particularly angry that Congress had invoked the war in Iraq as justification for “spending the nation’s scarce resources on trillion-dollar tax breaks for the very rich instead of investing in jobs, education and health care and other priorities of all Americans.
In barely a week the House and Senate each adopted their version of a resolution outlining their taxing and spending priorities. Each provided tax cuts for those at the top of income pyramid and cuts in social programs affecting those at the bottom. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the House approved cuts totaling $1.4 trillion over the next ten years while the Senate approved cuts in the $900 billion range, a difference of some $500 billion
When increased interest costs (House $361 billion; Senate $347 billion) are factored into the equation, the budgets adopted by both House and Senate will increase the deficit by nearly $2 trillion between 2003 and 2013.
The budget battle – more accurately the House-Senate fight over the size of any tax cut – has been one of the top stories coming out of Washington as the budget for fiscal year 2004 winds its way through Congress.
But that was only a skirmish. The Battle of the Budget will continue in the weeks and months ahead as Congress deals with 13 appropriation bills to fund government agencies ranging from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Although neither budget addresses the nation’s needs, there are differences – and those differences are worth fighting over:
• The House would cut entitlement programs by $265 billion over ten years, with more than 60 percent of the cuts coming from Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Supplemental Social Security, food stamps, school lunches and other programs benefiting low-income people.
• About half of these entitlement cuts would be in programs that operate as grant-in-aid to states, thus making the state budget crisis even worse. (The Senate budget makes no cuts in entitlements.)
• The House cuts in domestic discretionary spending amount to $244 billion when inflation is taken into account. The Senate makes cuts of $144 billion in these programs.
Brutal as they are when presented in dollar terms, these cuts are even more brutal when calculated in human terms: The House proposal to cut food stamps by $14 billion over the next ten years means cutting the food allowance for an elderly person living alone from 91 cents to 84 cents per meal. And so it is down the line: a $18.5 billion cut from the Supplemental Social Security program means cutting poor people from 74 percent of the federal poverty line to 70 percent, while proposed cuts in child care would deny slots to 275,000 children.
While opportunities for struggle are limited, those opportunities do exist, beginning with the fact that the GOP leadership in the House had to rattle the rafters to scrape up a 215-212 majority – 12 Republicans voted “no” – to pass the budget. On the Senate side, the leadership went down in flames when three GOP senators voted for an amendment cutting Bush’s “growth” package in half.
Republican leaders are aware of the growing unease over budget issues and are doing their best to keep it under control. To that end, the budget resolutions of both House and Senate provide that debate on tax legislation will be put on a “fast track,” with limited debate, a ban on amendments and an up-or- down vote on the entire package.
The next round in the budget wars will occur in the House, which has the Constitutional responsibility for initiating tax and spending measures. The task is to help those lonely 12 House Republicans stand their ground and then to win one more vote, beginning with the eight Democrats who crossed over.
The options may be limited but battle continues! What choice is there?
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