WASHINGTON (AP) — The historic $38 billion in budget cuts resulting from at-times hostile bargaining between Congress and the Obama White House were accomplished in large part by pruning money left over from previous years, using accounting sleight of hand and going after programs President Barack Obama had targeted anyway.
Such moves permitted Obama to save favorite programs — Pell grants for poor college students, health research and "Race to the Top" aid for public schools, among others — from Republican knives, according to new details of the legislation released Tuesday morning.
And big holes in foreign aid and Environmental Protection Agency accounts were patched in large part. Republicans also gave up politically treacherous cuts to the Agriculture Department's food inspection program.
The details of the agreement reached late Friday night just ahead of a deadline for a partial government shutdown reveal a lot of one-time savings and cuts that officially "score" as cuts to pay for spending elsewhere, but often have little to no actual impact on the deficit.
As a result of the legerdemain, Obama was able to reverse many of the cuts passed by House Republicans in February when the chamber approved a bill slashing this year's budget by more than $60 billion. In doing so, the White House protected favorites like the Head Start early learning program, while maintaining the maximum Pell grant of $5,550 and funding for Obama's "Race to the Top" initiative that provides grants to better-performing schools.
Instead, the cuts that actually will make it into law are far tamer, including cuts to earmarks, unspent census money, leftover federal construction funding, and $2.5 billion from the most recent renewal of highway programs that can't be spent because of restrictions set by other legislation. Another $3.5 billion comes from unused spending authority from a program providing health care to children of lower-income families.
Still, Obama and his Democratic allies accepted $600 million in cuts to a community health centers programs, $414 million in cuts to grants for state and local police departments, and a $1.6 billion reduction in the Environmental Protection Agency budget, almost $1 billion of which would come from grants for clean water and other projects by local governments and Indian tribes.
The National Institutes of Health, which funds critical medical research, would absorb a $260 million cut, less than 1 percent of its budget, instead of the $1.6 billion cut sought by House Republicans. Family planning programs would bear a 5 percent cut rather than being completely eliminated.
Homeland security programs would have to take their first-ever cut, though much of the 2 percent decrease comes from a $786 million cut to first responder grants to state and local governments. The IRS would see its budget frozen but be spared the 5 percent cut sought by House Republicans.
About $10 billion of the cuts already have been enacted as the price for keeping the government open as negotiations progressed; lawmakers tipped their hand regarding another $10 billion or so when the House passed a spending bill last week that ran aground in the Senate.
For instance, the spending measure reaps $350 million by cutting a one-year program enacted in 2009 for dairy farmers then suffering from low milk prices. Another $650 million comes by not repeating a one-time infusion into highway programs passed that same year. And just last Friday, Congress approved Obama's $1 billion request for high-speed rail grants — crediting itself with $1.5 billion in savings relative to last year.
The underlying issue is long overdue legislation to finance the day-to-day budget of every Cabinet department, including the Pentagon, for the already half-completed 2011 fiscal year. The measure caps 2011 funding for such operating budgets at about $1.2 trillion.