By Erik Wasson - 05/08/12 12:16 AM EDT
Republicans and Democrats clashed Monday on what is expected to be a chief battleground of the 2012 election — the fiscal plans of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Republicans.
A day after voters in France and Greece toppled governments in a European backlash against austerity measures, Republicans moved forward with legislation to replace $78 billion in automatic spending cuts to defense and discretionary domestic spending with a much larger $261 billion cut focused only on domestic spending.
The GOP said its bill highlights the Democrats’ obsessions with raising taxes and inability to accept even reasonable spending cuts to a government that is $16 trillion in debt.
Democrats said the party-line vote showed Republicans were more interested in protecting tax breaks for oil companies than in funding programs that help the poor and needy.
“It is no wonder commentators are calling Republicans reverse-Robin Hoods,” said Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), who offered a motion that would have replaced cuts to Medicaid and children’s health insurance with cuts to oil and gas subsidies.
The approval of the deep spending cuts by the House Budget Committee in a 21-9 vote took on added significance a day after French voters turned out President Nicolas Sarkozy in favor of a socialist government that promised to pair balancing the budget with economic stimulus.
It is unclear whether a majority of U.S. voters share the views of the French and Greek, who voted against parties that favored the terms of Europe’s bailout of Greece, which has imposed significant cuts to federal budgets.
Drama was also added by the rising political stock of Ryan, who is considered a favorite to serve as Mitt Romney’s presidential running mate. Ryan is seen as his party’s brightest and most articulate voice for reducing the size of government and lowering taxes.
Democrats believe a Ryan vice presidential run would work to their benefit. They argue his budget would “end Medicare as we know it” by offering seniors a future choice of getting subsidies to buy private insurance. At Monday’s markup, they were particularly interested in furthering their argument that Republicans are engaged in a “war on women.”
This was perhaps most notable when Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, highlighted her own struggle with breast cancer to criticize Republicans for cuts that she said would eliminate cancer screenings for women and preventive care for children.
“Republicans are once again playing politics with our health. ... Those screenings saved my life,” said Wasserman Schultz, who offered a motion to restore cuts to a preventive care fund set up by President Obama’s healthcare law. Her measure would have paid for restoring the cuts by eliminating certain business tax breaks she argued encouraged the shipping of jobs overseas.
Polls suggest Obama has a wide advantage over Romney, the expected Republican presidential candidate, among female voters, and congressional Democrats are increasingly doing whatever they can to raise Obama’s advantage.
The legislation approved by the committee would replace automatic spending cuts triggered by the failure last year of a supercommittee of lawmakers to agree to $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years.
The committee late Monday approved another measure that turns off $78 billion in automatic cuts, known as sequestration.
Without action by Congress, the automatic cuts would begin in January 2013.
The supercommittee was established by the deal last year to raise the nation’s debt limit. The automatic cuts were supposed to ensure that both defense and domestic discretionary spending would be cut if lawmakers failed to agree to their own deficit-reduction plan.
Both parties now want to avoid the cuts, particularly to the Pentagon. Ryan noted that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta himself has said the cuts would “hollow out” the Pentagon.
“Those aren’t my words. That is how the secretary of Defense describes it,” Ryan said.
He also noted that an 8 percent across-the-board cut in non-defense discretionary spending mandated by the debt deal would “inflict great damage on critical domestic priorities.”
“Those aren’t my words. Those words come from the president’s budget,” Ryan said.
Ryan’s bill replacing the sequester is based on recommendations from six committees. The sequester replacement is expected to be approved by the House, but is unlikely to move forward in the Senate, where Democrats hold the majority.
The fate of the sequestration cuts is likely to be determined after the election in a lame-duck session of Congress.
In the meantime, both parties are determined to use the fight over the automatic cuts to further their campaign arguments in the fall.
“We need to grow the middle class that has been destroyed over the last four years by a Democratic president,” Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas) said during Monday’s markup as lawmakers bickered over the tax breaks for oil and gas companies.
Ryan said cutting those breaks would send energy companies overseas looking for a lower tax rate, costing the nation jobs.
Democrats, for their part, offered repeated motions to replace cuts to healthcare programs with tax increases on oil companies.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), for example, offered a motion to restore services to seniors cut in the bill by increasing taxes on the “Big Five” major oil companies.
Republicans repeatedly pointed to programs they said represented wasteful spending by Washington. For example, the preventive care fund in the Obama healthcare law was described as a “slush fund” that has been wasted on projects like neutering pets.
Cuts to food stamp programs criticized by Democrats would just ensure that food stamps actually go to those eligible for the program, they said, while Social Security Block Grants, which fund programs like Meals on Wheels, are outdated and duplicative of other programs.