WASHINGTON - The House on Thursday approved sweeping legislation to cut $310 billion from the deficit over the next decade - much of it from programs for the poor - and to shift some of that savings to the Pentagon to stave off automatic military spending cuts scheduled for next year.
The legislation has no chance of passing the Senate and will not become law. The White House issued a veto threat, saying the bill would “fail the test of fairness and shared responsibility.’’ But its prescriptions and priorities could define the 2012 congressional elections - and are likely to affect the race for the White House.
Republicans framed the fight as a test of seriousness, saying their party was the only one willing to make the difficult choices necessary to tame the deficit. President Obama’s policies are “not working,’’ said Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the Budget Committee chairman.
“We need to change these policies. We need to grow the economy,’’ he said. “We’re leading.’’
Democrats said Republicans had become captives to a pledge never to raise taxes, foisting on Congress a Draconian plan that “asks more from those who have less and less from those who have more,’’ as Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the number two House Democrat, put it.
Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the budget committee’s ranking Democrat, said, “If you say from the beginning you’re not going to ask people making a million dollars a year to help do a little more to reduce our common deficit, if you say you’re not going to ask companies that have these tax loopholes that actually incentivize them to ship jobs overseas to pay a little bit more, what do you do?
“Your budget has to whack everyone else.’’
The bill’s political sensitivity came through in the 218 to 199 vote. Democrats were united in their opposition. Sixteen Republicans sided with the Democrats, and one Republican voted present.
The legislation laid bare a small portion of the details needed to fill in the broad strokes of the House Republican budget that passed in March. That budget instructed six committees to find at least $261 billion in savings from domestic programs and policies to defuse $55 billion in automatic Pentagon cuts scheduled to hit Jan. 1 under last year’s agreement to raise the federal debt limit.
To do that, the committees cut food stamps, children’s health insurance, and Medicaid, eliminated the Social Services Block Grant to state and local governments (which funds Meals on Wheels, child abuse prevention, and other programs) and eliminated a new fund designed to help the government liquidate failed financial giants.
Of the savings, $23.5 billion came from Medicaid and children’s health care, $4.2 billion from hospitals that serve the poor and uninsured, and $33.7 billion from supplemental nutrition assistance. In all, about a quarter of the cuts would come directly from programs that benefit the poor.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that more than 20 million children would face reduced food and nutrition support, almost 300,000 would be knocked off the federal school lunch program, and at least 300,000 would lose access to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
But Republicans said such numbers were misleading. For instance, many of those knocked off the food stamp rolls only qualify through an obscure rule called “categorical eligibility,’’ which automatically provides access if a family qualifies for any other federal assistance.
Both sides agree that the broad, across-the-board cuts scheduled for defense and nondefense programs next year are unwise. Those cuts were supposed to force a bipartisan special committee to come up with a deficit reduction plan last year that Republicans and Democrats could live with. That special committee failed, and the two parties are no closer to defusing the pending cuts.
At stake, said Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California, is “saving our men and women in uniform from holding wooden rifles.’’
Republicans in the Senate next week will try to force the issue by using parliamentary rules to bring up budget plans that Senate Democrats refuse to produce. That exercise in part is designed to embarrass the president by bringing up his budget, which faces near-unanimous defeat. But it will also put senators on record as for or against Ryan’s budget, which already is a centerpiece of House campaigns and is under attack by Democrats for the sweeping changes it proposes for Medicare.