WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s budget chief delivered a spirited defense of the plan’s deep spending cuts, but his agriculture secretary offered only a half-hearted endorsement of proposed reductions to farm subsidies and food stamps.
A day after the budget’s release, a handful of senior administration officials fanned out on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, facing tough questions from Democrats opposed to the blueprint for the upcoming fiscal year and Republicans skeptical about the administration’s math.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, meanwhile, gave Republicans the unwelcome news that they may have to cast a dreaded vote on increasing the government’s borrowing authority before they break for the August recess. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos faced a grilling from Democrats over funding private schools with taxpayer money.
One House Budget Committee member, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., told White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney that Trump’s proposed cuts to medical research are “penny-wise and pound-foolish” – and then excused himself to preside over DeVos’ testimony.
Here’s the rundown on the budget hearings:
Mulvaney gave an unapologetic defense of Trump proposals to slash programs related to the environment, education, health care for the poor and foreign aid.
The former tea party congressman told the Budget Committee that he went line by line through the federal budget and asked, “Can we justify this to the folks who are actually paying for it?”
Democrats charged that Trump’s cuts would rip apart the social safety net. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., told Mulvaney that the proposed cuts to food stamps, payments to the disabled, and other programs are “astonishing and frankly immoral.”
“We are talking about half the births in the United States, 30 million children, and half of all nursing home and long-term care nationwide for senior citizens and people with disabilities,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., citing Medicaid’s extensive reach.
“When you say `cut’ are you speaking Washington or regular language?” Mulvaney shot back.
Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., laced into the president’s budget plan, saying it was based on fanciful economic predictions of high growth rates but low inflation and bond yields that would make managing the government’s $20 trillion debt less costly.
“This budget presumes a Goldilocks economy” that never goes into recession, Sanford said. “It assumes that the stars perfectly align.”
Food and farm fight
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue was lukewarm in defending Trump’s budget to Democrats and some Republicans who rejected proposed cuts to farm programs and food stamps.
“Many in agriculture and rural America are likely to find little to celebrate within the budget request,” Alabama Rep. Robert Aderholt, the Republican chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees agriculture spending, told Perdue.
Trump’s budget would limit subsidies to farmers, including a cut in government help for purchasing popular crop insurance policies. Perdue said the nation has a dilemma in how to “right-size the budget” but acknowledged the concerns.
“I don’t know that your priorities are much different from my priorities for USDA,” he told Aderholt.
Democrats criticized a proposal for an almost 30 percent cut in food stamps. Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro called the budget “cruel,” `’heartless,” `’evil” and “inhumane.” Georgia Rep. Sanford Bishop said the cuts “fail the test of basic human decency.”
The Trump budget would also eliminate a program that ships American commodities to hungry people abroad. Aderholt said that program “is something we should be proud of” and eliminating it “runs entirely counter to the idea of buy American, hire American” that Trump has championed.
Perdue had no defense: “I think your comments are essentially irrefutable,” he said.
School voucher battle
Education Secretary DeVos faced pointed questions from lawmakers on whether funding private schools with taxpayer money would condone discrimination of LGBT, special needs and other students.
Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., asked DeVos whether a private school can receive voucher money even if it denies access to LGBT students. Trump’s budget would cut several key K-12 programs, while boosting funding for charter and private school voucher programs.
DeVos answered that that was not the federal government’s business, but was for states and locales to decide. “They set up the rules around that,” she said.
“We believe that parents are the best equipped to make choices about education for their children,” she said.
Clark then asked whether DeVos saw a role for the federal government to intervene if a private school rejected African-American students, and DeVos repeated her answer. “I am shocked that you could not provide one example of discrimination” that warrants federal intervention, Clark said.
Immigration jail beds
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly defended proposed budget cuts to state and local grant programs and a proposal to spend more than $2.7 billion to add thousands of new immigration jail beds despite steep declines of arrests along the Mexican border.
In a hearing before a House panel, Kelly insisted that it made sense to cut roughly $767 million from state and local grant programs, money intended to help local authorities prevent and respond to terrorist attacks and other disasters, because the funds are no longer needed.
“I wouldn’t say these funds are not very helpful for these states and localities, but I would offer that it isn’t as grim as you describe if we take it away,” Kelly said, responding to criticism of the proposal by Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. “Their efforts against terrorism and other disasters won’t immediately collapse.”
Lowey said she worried that Kelly didn’t fully understand how important that money is to local jurisdictions, including New York City.
“Your budget proposal would make communities … less safe,” Lowey said.
Rep. John Carter, a Texas Republican who chairs the subcommittee, described the proposed cuts as “worrisome” and also questioned the need to add thousands of new immigration jail beds.
Kelly told the panel that while arrests at the border have dropped to records lows in the months since Trump took office, arrests of immigrants living in the country illegally have increased and for now, at least, the added jail space is necessary. He suggested that in future budgets that may not be the case.
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