Trump’s gift to at-risk Republicans? A budget they can bash

Budget Director Mick Mulvaney arrives to speak to the media about President Donald Trump’s proposed fiscal 2018 federal budget, Tuesday, May 23, 2017, in the Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington.
Budget Director Mick Mulvaney arrives to speak to the media about President Donald Trump’s proposed fiscal 2018 federal budget, Tuesday, May 23, 2017, in the Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. AP

President Donald Trump may have handed Republicans leery of supporting him a great gift: a spending plan that calls for deep cuts to some of the country’s most popular programs – and one they can rail against.

Indeed, it did not take long for congressional Republicans on Tuesday to distance themselves from the White House’s $4.1 trillion budget blueprint, promising their constituents they’d fight Trump’s ideas.

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., facing re-election in 2018 in a state that Trump’s Democratic presidential rival narrowly won, denounced the president’s request as “anti-Nevada” for including $120 million in an effort to revive the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

“Yucca Mountain is dead; it’s a failed proposal that has already wasted billions of taxpayer dollars and is overwhelmingly rejected by Nevadans,” Heller said. “It’s time the administration move on.”

Heller said he also was “concerned” about the budget’s call for hefty cuts to Medicaid, noting that his state was one that expanded the health insurance program for the needy.

Other vulnerable Republican members of Congress, up for election in congressional districts that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won, were quick to denounce the plan, looking to contrast themselves with Trump.

In Florida, Rep. Carlos Curbelo criticized Trump’s call to slice public broadcasting, environmental programs and safety nets for what he said were the “most needy Americans.” Trump’s budget, he said, “does not reflect the appropriate allocation of funds to get our country back on sound fiscal footing.”

Likewise, Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas cited Trump targets such as crop insurance, the National Institutes of Health and Head Start as “vitally important” programs that should be preserved.

“It’s important to remember the power of the purse rests with Congress,” Yoder said.

In California, Republican Rep. David Valadao stopped short of criticizing Trump’s budget request but noted that lawmakers “must balance our duty to reduce spending with the needs of communities throughout the United States.” He added that it’s “important to adequately fund the critical programs and services many Americans, like my constituents in California’s Central Valley, rely on every day.”

Democrats made it clear they plan to pin Trump’s budget proposal on the GOP:

“No amount of spin will stop voters from finding out where they stand,” said Joshua Karp, with the Democratic-leaning advocacy group American Bridge. “Every Republican senator – and every Republican thinking about running for Senate in 2018 – owns this disastrous budget.”

Presidential budgets often are deemed dead on arrival in Congress even before they arrive, and Trump’s first budget was no exception. But this time, helping to throw dirt on the deal were even members of his own party who face little political risk but who nevertheless recoiled at the severity of some of the cuts to popular programs, including Medicaid, food stamps and medical research.

“The president proposes, we dispose,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who listed what he said were a number of problems with the budget proposal’s effect on rural America, in particular its call to cut crop insurance by 36 percent. “How on earth are those farmers supposed to stay in business without crop insurance?”

“There’s a lot in it I like,” offered Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who sits on the House Appropriations and Budget committees. But he said Trump’s budget cutters had sought to achieve balance with “too many cuts” in non-defense spending, including to the NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s good to have the sense of the president’s priorities, but we have to be realistic about what we can fashion and pass,” Cole said.

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He predicted Trump’s budget could face the same fate in the House as President Barack Obama’s budgets: zero votes.

“It’s appropriate that presidents lay out their priorities, but in the end this is pre-eminently a congressional decision and it pre-eminently needs to be done in a bipartisan way,” Cole said.

Fellow Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., hailed Trump’s call to boost military spending but said “drastic cuts” to the federal crop insurance program were “misguided.” 

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the call to slice the State Department budget by 29 percent would force the United States to “withdraw from the world” by curbing the agency’s diplomatic efforts and possibly safety.

“If you implemented this budget you’d have to retreat from the world,” he said. “A lot of Benghazis in the making if we actually implemented the State Department cuts.”

Asked whether Republicans were united in opposition to the cuts, Graham said, “I think enough of us are.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who chairs the Senate Committee on Armed Services, called Trump’s defense budget request “inadequate to the challenges we face, illegal under current law and part of an overall budget proposal that is dead on arrival in Congress.”

There was some congressional applause for Trump’s budget. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., noted that “like any presidential budget, anybody can find something that they would support or that they would do differently.”

But he argued that Trump’s budget plan, unlike Obama’s, focuses on balancing the federal budget.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., offered a measured response.

“It’s a recommendation,” McConnell told reporters. “We’ll take these things into consideration and move forward.”

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., a climate change skeptic, credited Trump with looking to cut 30 percent from the Environmental Protection Agency, which Inhofe called “one of, if not the most, bloated federal agencies.

“This cut to EPA will right-size the agency and return the focus to protecting air, land and water instead of churning out regulations,” he said. 

Lindsay Wise contributed to this report.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark

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