House Dem: White House energy cuts would 'literally freeze' people

Democrats from winter-weather states are lining up in droves to oppose a White House proposal to slash heating assistance for low-income families.

The lawmakers — including some senior Democrats — warn the cuts would very literally leave some of their most vulnerable constituents out in the cold.

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"It would have real-world consequences for some pretty powerless people," Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said Tuesday. "People would literally freeze."

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) warned the cuts could force low-income families to cut back on cooking meals to stay warm.

"They'll buy a space heater and put their lives in danger," DeLauro told reporters.

Senate Democrats have also slammed the energy cuts. "Talk about misplaced, off-track priorities," said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). "I won't support a budget that dumps billions of dollars into high-speed rail while cutting something as basic as heat for family homes across Montana and America."

As part of its 2012 budget blueprint, the Obama administration proposed slashing funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, from just over $5 billion down to $2.5 billion. The provision is part of the White House's new "cut-and-invest" strategy, in which some programs are cut to make room for new spending on education, infrastructure and research. 

White House Budget Director Jack Lew conceded Monday that the LIHEAP provision represents "a very hard cut" – one "that has real impact." But he also defended the $2.5 billion figure, saying it's consistent with 2008 funding levels, when energy prices were similar to those of today.

"If you go back to 2008, the program was funded at roughly $2.5 billion. We had a huge spike in energy prices, and the program doubled to $5 billion," Lew said. "We can't just straight-line the program at $5 billion. So we've gone back to the level it was at when prices were roughly the same."

Most Democrats — including DeLauro and Welch – have applauded the overall White House proposal, arguing that it strikes an appropriate balance between reining in deficits and investing in economic growth. Still, the LIHEAP provision is indication that party leaders are nonetheless ready to fight over individual provisions.

"I've got snow heaps taller than me," said Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), who supports the overall bill. "LIHEAP is a big deal."

DeLauro agreed. "They had to make some tough choices, I understand that," she said. "But I have a responsibility in that regard to championing that issue, and there may be several others.”

DeLauro added: "We can agree and have differences of opinion."