WASHINGTON — Having turned its focus from spending cuts to social issues and an assault on the Obama administration's regulatory agenda, a battle-weary House reconvenes Friday in hopes of wrapping up action on a big Republican spending bill that would impose sweeping cuts across domestic programs.
The measure is but the first step in an increasingly bitter struggle between Democrats and Republicans over how much to cut agency operating budgets over the second half of the budget year ending Sept. 30.
Current funding runs out March 4 and a temporary spending bill will be needed to avoid a government shutdown. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, inflamed the situation Thursday by insisting that the GOP-controlled House would refuse to approve even a short-term measure at current spending levels.
"Read my lips: We're going to cut spending," Boehner declared. Democrats immediately charged that Boehner was maneuvering Congress to the precipice of a government shutdown.
Action on Friday includes votes on a proposal to block federal aid to Planned Parenthood, bar the Pentagon from spending taxpayer money to sponsor NASCAR race teams, and reverse a proposed Obama administration rule that seeks to crack down of for-profit colleges and vocational schools.
Also due for votes are amendments that would strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to issue regulations on global warming and block the use of funds to implement the year-old health care law.
The GOP would reduce spending about $60 billion below last year's levels, mixing an increase of less than 2 percent for the Pentagon with slashing cuts averaging about 12 percent from non-Pentagon accounts. Such cuts would feel almost twice as deep since they would be spread over the final seven months of the budget year.
The Environmental Protection Agency and foreign aid accounts would be especially hard hit, while GOP leaders orchestrated just a modest cut to Congress' own budget.
Some of the most politically difficult cuts, to grants to local police and fire departments, special education and economic development grants, were reversed. Amtrak supporters easily withstood an attempt to slash its budget.
But with the fiscal framework of the measure already saddled with a veto threat, Republicans mounted an assault on the administration's regulatory agenda. By a 244-181 tally Thursday, Republicans voted to block the Federal Communications Commission from enforcing new rules that prohibit broadband providers from interfering with Internet traffic on their networks. The new "network neutrality" rules are opposed by large Internet providers.
Republicans then moved, on a 250-177 vote, to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from imposing limits on mercury pollution from cement factories. Supporters said the new rules would send American jobs overseas, where air quality standards are more lax or non-existent.
Republicans also turned back Democratic attempts to boost funding for the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, whose budgets would be cut sharply under the measure, to pay for responsibilities added in last year's overhaul of federal financial regulations.
Social issues also came into play.
Thursday night's action was dominated by a lengthy debate on an amendment by Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., a strong foe of abortion, to block Planned Parenthood from receiving any federal monies. The organization provides a variety of women's health services, and its website says abortion is a "safe and legal way to end pregnancy."
"It is morally wrong to take the taxpayer dollars of millions of pro-life Americans and use them to fund organizations that provide and promote abortion, like Planned Parenthood of America," Pence said.
Democrats said Planned Parenthood provides much-needed access to contraception, medical exams and counseling to women and that federal law already prohibits the use of government funds for abortions in most circumstances.
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said the GOP proposal would "make it harder to access pap tests, breast exams, routine gynecological examinations, flu vaccinations, smoking cessation services, cholesterol screening, contraceptives, and all of the other services that Planned Parenthood provides."
Liberal Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum hoped to team up with tea party-backed GOP freshmen to bar the Pentagon from spending taxpayer dollars to sponsor NASCAR race teams. She said such sponsorships can cost millions of dollars, simply for placing decals on race cars and for a few driver appearances.
The Army, the Air Force and the National Guard each sponsor cars with the aim of boosting military recruitment, but the Navy and Marine Corps dropped their NASCAR sponsorships in recent years, saying they didn't know whether they were effective.
"Here's the $7 million question: Does slapping a sticker on a race car convince a young man or woman to volunteer to serve our country in the armed forces?" McCollum said. "Not according to the Marine Corps."
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