Defense targeted as Congress looks for cuts

WASHINGTON – A powerful Senate panel moved to freeze the Pentagon’s budget on Wednesday, while House Republicans signaled that they will scale back cuts to domestic programs like housing subsidies as Congress sets to work on implementing last month’s budget deal.

At the same time, a top House GOP leader explicitly endorsed a new framework for disaster aid agreed to in the same bipartisan budget pact that would permit billions of dollars to be added to the budget for victims of Hurricane Irene and disasters dating back to Hurricane Katrina.

All of the steps involve writing the details of the day-to-day budgets for Cabinet agencies for the budget year beginning Oct. 1. The work by the House and Senate appropriations committees is separate from a congressional supercommittee charged with finding $1.2 trillion or more in deficit cuts over the coming decade. The supercommittee officially begins work today.

The move on defense spending by the Democratic-led Senate Appropriations Committee would freeze the amount of money available for an upcoming measure at $513 billion, the same amount provided in an April budget law. The actual details won’t be released until the Pentagon funding measure is voted on later, but the move is sure to rile defense hawks in the House.

“We’ve already cut our capacity, our desire, our ability to do things. We’ve downsized and cut back and cut back,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif. No GOP senators complained, however.

The welter of activity comes as Congress returns from an August recess to confront a lengthy roster of unfinished business, including legislation to set the annual operating budgets of every Cabinet agency.

Last month’s budget pact has brought a measure of peace to the appropriations process for 2012, which was the subject of a highly contentious battle earlier this year.

The budget pact requires a relatively small, $7 billion cut to the total amount of money available for agency budgets and requires that they be spread relatively equally between “security” and “nonsecurity” accounts. That budget cap was attached to last month’s measure increasing the debt limit and establishing the budget supercommittee.

On Wednesday, the Senate panel gave overwhelming approval, 29-1, to three spending bills covering agriculture, homeland security, and energy and water programs. At the same time, the House Appropriations Committee unveiled a $55 billion transportation and housing measure that freezes such programs at current levels.

The $41 billion homeland security measure comes in slightly below current levels and includes $6 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund, $4.2 billion of which is on top of the overall agency spending cap of $1.043 trillion set last month. The budget pact allowed for the move to provide more stability in disaster funding.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., endorsed the idea, if not the specific amount of disaster aid, in a softening of the stance he appeared to take last month, when he said that disaster aid “will be offset with appropriate savings or cost-cutting elsewhere” in the budget.

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