President Trump’s proposal to cut federal spending by more than $3.6 trillion over the next decade, much of it for programs that help the poor, faces harsh criticism in Congress, where even many Republicans say the White House has gone too far.
But fiscally conservative lawmakers, particularly in the House, found a lot to praise in Trump’s plan, which would balance the budget within 10 years — setting up a potential clash between House and Senate Republicans as they wrangle over spending in the coming weeks.
Lawmakers raised concerns Monday about a White House proposal expected Tuesday that would trim more than $1 trillion over 10 years from anti-poverty programs, including Medicaid, food assistance and health insurance for low-income children.
“It’s a problem — it’s a big problem,” Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), the chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee, said of a proposed $610 billion reduction in Medicaid spending. “I’ve got one of the poorest districts in the country, with lots of Medicaid recipients as well as other programs. . . . The cuts are draconian.”
Although it is not uncommon for members of a president’s own party to criticize some elements of a White House budget blueprint, Trump’s first attempt fell flat with congressional budget experts and conservatives alike. Among the criticism was that Trump had betrayed some of his populist campaign promises, notably to protect Medicaid spending.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior member of the budget and appropriations committees, said that the White House budget is a “useful debating document” but that it is full of proposals that simply cannot pass in Congress. Cole predicted that many of the deep spending cuts, such as those to Meals on Wheels and the National Institutes of Health, would anger Republicans and Democrats alike.
Any attempt to write the 13 annual spending bills to match Trump’s request would be a recipe for failure, Cole said. Even those spending measures that could get enough GOP support to pass the House would be doomed in the Senate, where Republicans hold a slim 52-48 majority and must turn to Democrats to come up with 60 votes necessary to pass most legislation.
“We have to avoid the temptation of giving the president everything he wants, because if we gave him everything he wanted into writing we couldn’t enact it,” Cole said.
Even among the majority of GOP members who hailed Trump’s desire to pare back spending, many worried about the size of some of the proposed cuts.
Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.), chairman of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, said he was encouraged by early reports of new curbs on food stamps, family welfare and other spending, but said he draws the line on cuts to Meals on Wheels — a charity that White House budget director Mick Mulvaney suggested was ineffective earlier this year.
“I’ve delivered meals to a lot of people that perhaps it’s their only hot meal of the day,” Meadows said. “And so I’m sure there’s going to be some give and take, but to throw out the entire budget just because you disagree with some of the principles would be inappropriate.”
Other conservatives more staunchly defended aspects of the proposal.
Rep. Scott DesJarlais (Tenn.), a Freedom Caucus member, rejected the argument that Trump’s budget represented a betrayal of his populist campaign rhetoric.
“If we don’t do something to protect the program for the people who really need it, then they’re not going to have access to that, so I think we can’t continue to ignore these big-ticket items,” he said. “If we’re ever going to get our budget to balance and pay down our debt, we’re going to have to make these tough choices and have these tough votes.”
And although Meadows said Meals on Wheels cuts might be “a bridge too far,” he said grants to that organization represent a minuscule portion of federal spending — and he praised much of the rest of the Trump budget.
“It probably is the most conservative budget that we’ve had under Republican or Democrat administrations in decades,” he said.
Mulvaney told reporters Monday that the spending plan, titled “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” aims to protect taxpayer money by cutting spending on programs that discourage people from working or are otherwise ineffective in growing the economy.
Mulvaney pointed specifically to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the modern version of food stamps. The White House plans to propose forcing states to pay a portion of the benefits in the program which reached more than 44 million beneficiaries in 2016.
“If you are on food stamps and you are able-bodied, we need you to go to work,” Mulvaney said. “If you are on disability insurance and you are not supposed to be, you are not truly disabled, we need you to go back to work.”
Mulvaney, who served in the House from 2011 until earlier this year, is a co-founder of the Freedom Caucus. Many of the provisions in Trump’s first budget reflect long-standing priorities of the Republican Party’s far right in cutting back federal spending to get the nation’s long-term fiscal picture under control — largely by cutting entitlement programs that mainly benefit the poor.
In fact, Trump’s budget stays true to at least some of his populist campaign promises by avoiding major reforms to Medicare and Social Security. That and other aspects of the proposal clash with conservative thinking, including a boost to defense spending that is not universally supported among hard-line conservatives.
Yet the blueprint also marks a significant attempt to ratchet back spending programs that have traditionally been supported by both Republicans and Democrats, notably the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
The White House is expected to propose ending a 2015 increase in federal contributions to the state-run health plan for very low-income children. Under Trump’s proposal, federal payments under the nearly 20-year-old program would be limited for families with incomes of no higher than 250 percent of the federal poverty level.
The White House contends that the proposal would ensure that the program helps only the neediest children, but many Republicans questioned that approach.
“There will be some concerns if we go too deep in some of these areas,” said Rep. Mark Walker (N.C.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, which has proposed budgets in recent years that have called for major cuts to mandatory spending programs.
Julia Lawless, a spokeswoman for Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), reaffirmed GOP support for the program in the Senate.
“There is a bipartisan desire within the Finance Committee to ensure funding for CHIP is continued and services for vulnerable children is maintained,” Lawless said in a email. “Chairman Hatch will continue to work with members and the administration to find a viable path forward.”
The White House budget also opens Republicans to fresh attacks from Democrats who say the GOP is pushing an agenda that would leave millions of people worse off than they were under President Barack Obama. In a preview of attacks to come, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday that the deep-cutting budget blueprint is further evidence that Trump’s core campaign promise to protect working people was a lie.
“We have seen promise after promise just broken, as if they didn’t even matter,” Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor. “Candidate Trump campaigned as a populist, said he wanted to help the working people, but since he has taken office he has governed like a hard-right conservative — pushing policies that help the uber wealthy at the expense of the middle class.”
Damian Paletta contributed to this report.