Fellow Dems shoot down fiscal hawks

Four House Democrats who have proposed significant spending cuts were chastised at a recent caucus meeting for targeting programs senior appropriators had deemed vital, according to lawmakers and aides.

Reps. Gary Peters (Mich.), John Adler (N.J.), Jim Himes (Conn.) and Peter Welch (Vt.) introduced an amendment to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development spending bill that would cut a dozen programs — totaling $1.4 billion — that had been added on top of President Obama’s initial budget request.

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It was an effort to target a few government programs to chip away at a massive budget deficit — just as House leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), have ordered committee heads to do.

 But instead of winning praise, the four Democrats were taken to task — and eventually withdrew their amendment.

 According to multiple participants at the Wednesday caucus meeting, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) strenuously objected to the measure, saying it took direct aim at items added by appropriators geared toward stimulating the economy.

“Obey had an absolutely out-of-body experience over this,” one Democrat said.

 So, too, did several other Democrats, according to those present. Democrats who rose in Obey’s defense included caucus Chairman John Larson (D-Conn.) and Steering and Policy Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), both key Pelosi allies and members of her leadership team.

A senior Democratic aide said that after enough members had voiced their displeasure with the proposed cuts, Larson asked for unanimous consent to tell the four, on behalf of the caucus, that their amendment needed to be withdrawn.

The staffer said the members there represented “a good cross section of the caucus” and that no one objected.
Peters, Adler, Himes and Welch missed the caucus meeting — unintentionally, they said — but word spread quickly to them and others about the reaction.

Later that day, at a meeting of the centrist New Democrat Coalition, the pushback was far less severe, and in fact came from only those few New Democrats who are also appropriators, one member of the coalition said.

“The whole point of putting specific cuts on the table was to start a discussion. And boy, did we ever start a discussion. Discussion is maybe a euphemism for some of the pressure we came under,” Himes said. “And we’re going to continue this — assuming other appropriations bills come up.”

Of the four Democrats, three — Peters, Adler and Himes — are in competitive reelection races, according to The Cook Political Report.

Critics of the Democrats’ proposal said the plan missed the mark by going after programs that were meant to help stimulate the economy — the goal that Democratic leaders have not been shy about saying is more urgent than reducing the deficit.

The programs the members were seeking to ax included $400 million for national infrastructure investment; $400 million for high speed rail development; $200 million in HOPE IV housing grants; and $22 million for housing assistance vouchers for disabled veterans, known as HUD-VASH. None had been requested by the administration.

“Our cuts were less than 2 percent of this budget, and I had leadership member after leadership member come up to me and look at me like I had grown a new head,” Himes said. “In a sense, [the] experience has only reinforced what we believe, which is that we have a long way to go toward a sane discussion about fiscal responsibility.

“We obviously stirred the hornet’s nest,” he added. “What you saw was four guys who aren’t Blue Dogs, who come from the North, who made a good-faith effort, and it created a hurricane.”

The four legislators said they withdrew their amendment because they couldn’t get unanimous consent to strike the HUD-VASH funding from the pot of money to be withdrawn from the bill — after the Obama administration had come around on the program’s merits.

Despite considerable pressure from their colleagues, Peters, Adler and Himes voted in favor of a similar amendment, offered by Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), to cut $1.8 billion in programs added above the administration’s request.

Latham’s measure didn’t pass, despite attracting the backing of 30 Democrats.

“At some point, as I said to these leadership members, these cuts are going to be far larger than 2 percent, and we can’t seem to even get here,” Himes said.

Meanwhile, some House Democrats have taken note that their leaders are not united on how to deal with the nation’s record deficit.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has said raising the retirement age for Social Security should be considered, but Pelosi has flatly rejected that idea.

“I think leadership looks at pay-go as a tool in the future to restrain spending,” Adler said, referring to the deficit-reducing tool most often cited by Democratic leaders as indicative of their commitment to closing the budget gap. “What I advocate, and what I think some other members of both parties advocate, is a more rigorous review of our current spending to eliminate unnecessary programs, or even programs that may be useful, but that aren’t vital right now, and aren’t stimulative to our economy but might end up just increasing our deficit in ways we can’t sustain.

 “We need to show the American people that we’re serious about spending less now, not sometime in the distant future,” he added. “We need to do what families and small businesses have been doing for the last couple years during tough times.”