GOP appropriators urge president to take on entitlements

House Appropriators were feeling the heat last week as they were asked in a matter of hours to find a way to make the biggest budget cuts the United States has seen since the end of World War II, as Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) put it.

In interviews, they said they hoped President Obama’s fiscal 2012 budget, to be released Monday, would finally start to tackle runaway entitlement spending, since it is impossible to try to balance the budget just by slashing annual appropriations.

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Appropriators had come up with $74 billion in cuts to 2011 funding by last Wednesday, but under pressure from Tea Party-backed freshmen had to go $26 billion deeper by Friday night.

Those cuts are all coming out of annually appropriated discretionary funding, which makes up only 16 percent of all federal spending.

Members of the House Appropriations Committee know in granular detail that many constituents consider the programs being slashed to be sacrosanct.

“Mine is a painful process to find the savings necessary,” Labor and Health Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) said, after he was asked to slash job training, community health centers and schools funding.

Appropriators said they felt their sacrifices didn’t really solve the nation’s $1.5 trillion budget deficit anyway.

Appropriations Committee member Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) said that despite all the “gnashing of teeth” the cuts are “small potatoes” compared to entitlement spending, which consumes a growing percentage of the federal budget each year as retiring baby boomers begin to collect Social Security and tap into Medicare.

Key appropriators told The Hill that President Obama in his fiscal 2012 budget should back cuts in mandatory spending such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in order to take the pressure off appropriations to solve the nation’s fiscal woes.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Commerce, Justice and science budgets, said the 2012 budget request should embrace the findings of the president’s debt commission let by former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.).

“He has got to embrace the Bowles-Simpson commission, he has got to talk about entitlements, that is where the money will come from,” he said.

But even Bowles and Simpson could not convince the required supermajority of their commission members to embrace their budget-cutting proposals, so there was no official proposal. They proposed their own plan, some of which has been introduced as legislation.

Wolf made clear he is sympathetic to Obama’s calls for investment in innovation. He said the United States has to invest in basic research and that it would be short-sighted to try to balance the federal budget by endlessly hacking away at National Science Foundation and National Aeronautics and Space Administration spending.

“I was very disappointed with Obama’s State of the Union,” Wolf said.

House Appropriations Financial Services Subcommittee Chairwoman Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) also said that Obama’s budget should start a discussion of reining in entitlements and other mandatory spending.

“The president has to provide leadership for us to tackle mandatory spending,” she said. “It’s just unfair that it all has to come out of discretionary spending … I mean rural health centers. That is the heart and soul of my district.”

House Appropriations Interior and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said Obama “needs to tackle the entitlements” in the budget.

“Leadership and the Obama administration need to sit down and get together and figure out what we are going to do about entitlements,” he said. “You are not going to balance this budget with cuts to discretionary spending.”

Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), who chairs the Appropriations transportation and housing subcommittee, said neither Republicans or Democrats alone can muster the support needed to tackle entitlements.

“It is not going to happen unless everybody does it together,” he said.

Many Republicans view the effort to reform Social Security under President Bush, who unsuccessfully proposed letting individuals invest some of that money on their own, as having contributed to the loss of their House majority in 2006.

They now argue that Republicans would be foolish to propose reforms again, without Obama showing he wants to have the conversation and is willing to consider benefit cuts.

The Obama administration weighed embracing the Bowles-Simpson debt commission’s cuts to Social Security as part of the 2012 budget, but sources said they backed off under pressure from activists.