WASHINGTON — Several congressional Republicans are panning the emerging outlines of President Donald Trump’s first budget, complaining that he’s cutting too much from already lean department accounts while leaving untouched the massive benefit programs blamed for the nation’s deficits.
“The president has a saying, ‘All talk, no action.’ His budget is all talk and no action when it comes to long-term indebtedness,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters Wednesday. “You cannot rearrange the 30 percent of the budget that’s discretionary spending forever because entitlements begin to crowd out the discretionary budget.”
Republicans say plans to impose sharp cuts to foreign aid and domestic programs are a non-starter in the GOP-led Congress, underscoring the tough task for Trump in securing support.
The government’s budget has two main spending components.
Discretionary spending is the $1 trillion-plus portion of the $4 trillion federal budget that pays for annual expenses for federal Cabinet agencies such as Defense, Education and the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s been squeezed in recent years while the costs of mandatory programs like Medicare and Social Security increase each year, mostly unchecked.
Trump’s draft budget plan would add $54 billion to the Pentagon’s projected budget, financed by taking an equal amount from domestic agencies and departments. Diplomacy and foreign aid would face a 37 percent cut that would be felt across the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, while numerous domestic agencies would get hit with budget cuts.
Trump would leave Social Security and Medicare alone in keeping with his campaign promises, though his budget director says cuts to other mandatory programs — which include food stamps, student loans and refundable tax credits for the working poor — are under consideration.
“We can no longer expand federal spending without finding savings somewhere,” said Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md. “And so, the people who want to protect nondefense discretionary, they’re going to have to realize at some point we may have to look at the entitlement programs.”
Proposed cuts to foreign aid and domestic agencies have caused heartburn among the pragmatic-minded lawmakers on the House and Senate Appropriations committees, whose programs were significantly curbed by a hard-fought 2011 budget and debt agreement.
“We’ve reduced our discretionary spending over the last seven or eight years an incredible amount,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J. “Maybe some people don’t like those agencies, but it’s been pretty difficult for them to meet their mandate.”
At the same time, GOP defenders of foreign aid — including Graham and including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky — said Trump’s plans to slash it are dead on arrival.
“The diplomatic portion of the federal budget is very important and you get results a lot cheaper frequently than you do on the defense side,” McConnell told reporters. “So speaking for myself, I’m not in favor of reducing the (foreign aid) account to that extent.”
In a round of media appearances Wednesday morning, Vice President Mike Pence didn’t offer assurances to GOP deficit hawks.
“The president’s made it clear, he wants to make a priority of national security, rebuilding our military, but he wants to do it in a fiscally responsible way,” Vice President Mike Pence said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Other Trump targets include the Environmental Protection Agency, the IRS, and many grant programs for state and local government. Public housing vouchers for the poor are targeted as well. Lawmakers also will try to protect aid to disadvantaged schools, Pell Grants for low-income college students, medical research, Amtrak subsidies, and water and sewer projects.
“There are important priorities within the domestic side,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan.
McConnell noted that it requires Democratic votes in the Senate to pass appropriations bills. That works to the advantage of more pragmatic Republicans.
The Senate’s top Democrat also panned Trump’s draft budget.
“The same time he’s talking about medical research he’s going to slash it,” Schumer said Wednesday. “Education. He talked about the great issue of education. Same thing. His budget is going to slash education to smithereens.”
Graham said Democrats and many Republicans don’t have the stomach for curbing big benefit programs. “They see the logic of entitlement reform, but politically it’s sort of the place where nobody wants to go.”