The Guardian 7 December, 2005

Battle rages over budget cuts

Tim Wheeler

WASHINGTON: The Coalition on Human Needs (CHN) denounced as a "spectacle of greed" a House vote on November 18 to approve $50 billion in cutbacks to food stamps, Medicaid and other vital benefits for the poor coupled with a push for $70 billion in tax cuts for millionaires.

But the House leadership had to twist arms and delay the vote late into the night to gain the razor-thin 217-215 approval of the so-called "Budget Reconciliation" Bill. Ellen Teller, a grassroots organiser for the Food Research and Action Centre (FRAC), a group affiliated with CHN, pointed out that the Senate version of the Bill is "totally irreconcilable" with the House Bill. For example, the House version would terminate food stamp benefits for 300,000 people each month including 70,000 legal immigrants. But the Senate version contains no cuts in the food stamp program.

"You don’t compromise the food stamp program", she said. "It has performed admirably during the hurricanes and other disasters to take in people who needed the assistance. Our position is ‘No cuts!’ We oppose this budget reconciliation Bill."

CHN leaders called on the 750 organisations in their coalition to redouble the fight to block the cuts when House and Senate conferees meet to try to iron out the differences between the versions, probably after December 12. CHN mobilised such a huge outpouring of messages against the Bill in October and November that the Republican Party leadership admitted they lacked the votes and temporarily pulled the Bill from the floor.

"A number of things could happen", Teller said. "It could die in conference. It could be reported back and rejected on the House or Senate floor. Look at what is at stake: Food stamps. Medicaid. student loans. foster care, drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. So many constituencies are hit by this legislation."

She warned that the lawmakers may engage in horse-trading, pitting food stamps against Medicaid, for example. "None of us is so myopic as to fall for that", she said. "Nutrition programs are our piece of the pie. But we support all the programs that serve low-income people."

A shift by even a handful in the closely divided House could kill the measure, she said. In New York, constituents bombarded the office of Representative Ed Towns to express their disappointment that he was absent and did not cast a "no" vote on the Bill. "And Representative Randy Cunningham who voted yes is no longer there", she said, referring to the Republican lawmaker who admitted taking more than $2 million in bribes from Pentagon weapons contractors. He has resigned in disgrace.

In a statement released to the media, CHN charged that the cutbacks will "kick people when they are down and block their efforts to pick themselves up." The Urban Institute-Brookings Institute Tax Centre charged that 53 percent of the tax cuts pushed by President George W Bush and the GOP leadership will go to the one percent with annual incomes above $1 million. "Are you as outraged as we are?" the CHN statement asked. "Tell your House member to vote No on tax reconciliation."

On December 17, 22 Republican House Members stunned their Republican leaders by joining all 201 Democrats in voting 224-209 to kill a separate $142.5 billion spending bill for health, education, labour and other domestic programs in next year’s federal budget, the first revolt by Republican moderates since the Republicans seized majority control of the House in 1994.

Here too the issue was draconian cuts in vital programs, including $1 billion in cuts for health care and the elimination of $7 billion to prepare for a looming Avian flu pandemic. The package also slashed higher education funding by $14.5 billion, neatly offset by the $14 billion in tax giveaways for the profit-bloated oil and gas corporations.

Yet one day later, the Republican leadership succeeded in reversing the votes of a handful of those same moderate Republicans, enough to squeak through the $50 billion cuts by a two-vote margin.

Fear of an angry voter backlash is driving deep splits into Republican ranks as incumbent lawmakers look ahead to the 2006 election. How will moderate Republicans explain to their constituents that they voted to slash food stamps and Medicaid to the poor and dole out $70 billion in tax cuts to the rich when the nation is still reeling from Hurricane Katrina?

Debbie Weinstein, CHN executive director, told the People’s Weekly World, "These are issues that directly affect low-income people, whether or not they are going to be able to get food and medical care, foster care for children. These mean-spirited cuts are just not acceptable."

The programs are "mandatory," she explained, meaning that money to fund them increases automatically if the need rises with no need for the House or Senate to approve increased spending. "From a human needs perspective, it would be better if they do not act", she said. "Just let this bill die."

She urged people to sign an online petition, "Act Now: Emergency Campaign for America’s Priorities" sponsored by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, USAction, and CHN.

People’s Weekly World

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