Republicans began moving Wednesday toward approving more than $17 billion in cuts in scores of federal programs, including potentially crippling reductions in President Clinton's volunteer service initiative as well as deep cuts for the nation's public broadcasting network.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), in remarks as the day began, described the effort as "probably the most controversial thing we've done" since the GOP took control of Congress and promised to end the decades-old practice of federal deficit spending. "This is going to be one of the most difficult and complicated projects ever undertaken by the House."
The cuts in the President's National and Community Service (AmeriCorps) program would nearly double the reductions recommended by the House Appropriations Committee, wiping out all planned expansion and cutting existing spending by more than half.
The Senate, when it considers the legislation, is expected to be less inclined to make such severe cuts. Even before the House launched into its sometimes complex and often bitter partisan debate, Republicans were forced to make concessions within their party to avert a split that threatened the entire package of cuts when it comes up for final passage today.
Republican conservatives yielded to party moderates and deleted a series of restrictions on federal financing for abortions that had been added to the measure.
And in a step that deflected sharp Democratic criticism that the cuts would only be used to cover a future capital gains tax cut for wealthy Americans, the House voted, 418 to 5, to place the savings in a "locked box," known as a deficit-reduction trust fund, for use only to help reduce the deficit.
"Getting this first rescission bill through is hard," Gingrich said. "Getting the balanced budget through will be harder.
"But once we get the 100 days done and we have the contract done, we're prepared to focus all of our energies on getting that balanced budget written and getting it through. I think that's an extraordinary commitment on the part of the House Republican Party."
He predicted that it will be "30 times harder" in the weeks ahead to slash spending enough to meet the GOP's goal of a zero deficit by the year 2002.
The list of spending reductions before the House was assembled last month to cover $5.5 billion in federal emergency aid for victims of the Northridge earthquake and other disasters. But the cuts mushroomed to $17.1 billion as Republicans, eager to display their budget-cutting mien, drew up hundreds of proposed cuts.
The reductions would range from clean-air programs to veterans' affairs and education projects. About $5 million would be taken from both the national endowments for the arts and the humanities and $131.6 million would be excised from new urban transportation and bus subsidies.
But the deepest cuts would come in five areas: $5.7 billion from assisted housing for the poor, $1.7 billion from summer youth job programs, $1.3 billion from low-income home energy assistance, $1.3 billion from safe drinking water initiatives and $500 million from severely distressed public housing projects.
Republicans voted down a series of Democrat-sponsored amendments aimed at saving individual programs.
After paying for the disaster assistance, the package would result in savings of $11.6 billion.
The original proposal provides for about $141 million in cuts over the next two years from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which received $285 million from the federal government this year. Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-Ill.) offered an amendment to reduce the subsidies by one-third for each of the next three years, arguing federal funding will end after 1998.
The amendment failed, and a similar proposal by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach)--whose office was flooded with about 1,200 messages from the public protesting further cuts--was withdrawn.
The package also would scrap the entire $210-million increase this year in the President's AmeriCorps program, which received $370 million last year. And a Republican amendment approved Wednesday would slice another $206 million from the program and use it to restore some proposed cuts that would have reduced veterans' health care programs.
"This cut kills AmeriCorps," presidential assistant Eli Segal, who is chief executive officer for the corporation, said in a statement late Wednesday. AmeriCorps provides college aid to participants in exchange for their work in community service jobs.
"Of 20,000 serving in communities across America, 1,000 AmeriCorps members would be sent home immediately," Segal said, "15,000 others would be sent home over the next few months (and) 29,000 out of the 33,000 AmeriCorps members already authorized to begin their service in September . . . would be told: We're backing out of our commitments.
"Working families--who were counting on AmeriCorps to help them pay for college--would be especially hard-hit," he said.
Rick Allen, deputy assistant to Clinton for national service, said that Republicans are trying to humiliate the President by cutting a program that he had made a central element of his 1992 campaign.
"It was very clear in the debate on the floor that the instigators of this effort in the Republican leadership did it deliberately to insult the President," he said.
Twenty-six influential members of the Congressional Urban Caucus--made up of Democrats who represent the nation's largest cities--angrily lashed out against Republicans and said an analysis by the caucus showed that 78% of the cuts hit urban programs particularly hard, while money for defense contractors and farm subsidies largely was left intact.
"The Gingrich-GOP cuts are not fair; they are not evenhanded," complained Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "These cuts come down like a ton of bricks on cities across the country.
"Housing will be gutted. Heating for the elderly, gone. Drug-free schools, cut. AIDS prevention, forget it," he said.
But Democrats, joined by moderate Republicans, succeeded in removing anti-abortion language from the legislation. About 30 Republicans, probably enough to kill the entire spending cuts package in a chamber where the GOP has a 26-seat majority, had threatened to vote against it if it contained tighter restrictions on federally financed abortions.
In remarks at the start of the day, Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), who as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee shepherded the spending cuts to the House floor, warned the Democrats that more and deeper cuts in spending programs will follow.