WASHINGTON -- The House on Thursday passed its plan to spare the military's growing budget from mandatory cuts, instead slashing Medicaid, benefits for federal workers and programs to help feed hungry Americans.
The House drew up the "reconciliation budget" in hopes of heading off automatic cuts mandated in last summer's deal to raise the nation's debt limit. Under that deal, $1.2 trillion must be "sequestered" -- that is, cut -- from the budget over the next 10 years, with about half coming from the military. Such reductions would still allow the defense budget to grow by 20 percent.
Rather than decrease military spending, the plan reduces projected outlays elsewhere. The proposal, which emerged from the House Budget Committee chaired by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Monday, would cut $83 billion in federal retirement benefits (equivalent to about a 5 percent pay cut), save $49 billion by capping medical malpractice lawsuits, slash about $48 billion from Medicaid programs and cut food aid by more than $36 billion.
"I am so sick and tired of the demonization of programs that benefit poor people in this country, especially the [food stamp] program," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) during the floor debate, noting that food stamps provide $1.50 per meal. "This is not some extravagant, overly generous benefit," he added. "Rather than cutting waste in the Pentagon budget, which we all know exists, you protect the Pentagon budget. You know, rather than going after subsidies for oil companies and going after billionaire tax breaks, you protect all that."
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that demand for food assistance will continue to grow through 2014.
"How do we reconcile more money for bombs while cutting money for bread?" asked Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). "The real deficit that we are dealing with here is a moral deficit, and it's time that we face the truth."
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) accused the GOP of "whacking" the poor. He pointed to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office that found some 22 million households with children would lose aid to buy food, 300,000 children would be cut from school lunch programs, and 300,000 children would lose health insurance under the House plan.
Republicans "won't ask one penny more from people making over $1 million a year to help us reduce our deficit, not one penny," Van Hollen said. "The math is pretty simple after that. Because you ask nothing of them, your budget whacks everyone else."
House Democrats sought to offer their own reconciliation measure that would likewise have protected defense, but with more of the funds raised by taxing the wealthy and ending subsidies for oil companies, among other measures. Republicans rebuffed the effort, arguing that the country has a spending problem, not a revenue problem.
"The fact is that this administration has spent us into the Stone Age and added to our deficit approximately $1 trillion a year since they came into office," said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), accusing Democrats of playing politics.
"My friends on the other side of the aisle have demagogued this reconciliation bill beyond recognition," Franks said. "The fact, however, remains that this bill reduces the deficit not by some parade of horribles, but by stopping fraud, eliminating government slush funds and duplicative programs, and controlling runaway federal spending."
Rep. Ryan argued that the proposed cuts were about helping the poor by reforming inefficient programs.
"Here's the problem: These efforts aren't working. One in six Americans today are in poverty," Ryan said. He did not mention the recession as a reason for that poverty, suggesting instead that it was the result of a growing culture of dependency.
"Let's get back to the idea of America as an opportunity society," he said.
It is unlikely the House measure can survive in the Senate, and the White House has threatened to veto it. Nevertheless, the debate over the bill is likely to echo through the fall elections. Various elements of the House GOP plan will also probably be offered again in the future, since both parties would prefer to head off the mandatory cuts slated to begin in 2013.
Michael McAuliff covers politics and Congress for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.