WASHINGTON -- The Republican-controlled Senate on Wednesday blocked a White House plan to cut almost $15 billion in unused government money meant for children's health insurance and other programs.
Two Republicans -- Susan Collins of Maine and Richard Burr of North Carolina -- joined with Democrats to defeat the measure that was supported by President Donald Trump. Fifty senators opposed the plan, and 48 supported it.
The so-called rescissions package would take a mostly symbolic whack at government spending because it would eliminate leftover funding that likely would not have been spent anyway.
"Rescission authority" is a mechanism little used in recent years that allows presidents to submit to Congress a request to cancel spending it has already approved.
Trump and GOP conservatives had embraced the plan after passage in March of a $1.3 trillion catchall spending bill that they say was too bloated.
The GOP-controlled House narrowly passed the spending cuts earlier this month after the White House urged lawmakers "to return this funding to the Federal Treasury rather than use it as a budgetary gimmick to offset spending elsewhere."
But passage had never been assured in the Senate, where a number of Republicans had been cool to the idea from the start.
The budget deficit is on track to exceed $800 billion this year despite a strong economy.
The cuts in the rescissions package included $7 billion from the Children's Health Insurance Program, mostly from an expired account that can no longer be used; $5 billion from Energy Department programs, including a little-used loan program for advanced technology vehicle manufacturing; and smaller amounts from a variety of other programs ranging from Forest Service land acquisition to the Millennium Challenge Corp.
Independent analyses said that since most of the money would not have been spent anyway, the actual spending reduction was closer to $1 billion. That's a tiny fraction of the federal budget, but conservative lawmakers in both chambers viewed it as a start in showing Congress' commitment to reining in spending in a midterm election year, at a time of drastically rising deficits and debt.
Democrats complained about the prospect of money being taken from the Children's Health Insurance Program.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the idea that Republicans would claw back billions of dollars from children's health insurance, affordable housing and rural development after forcing through tax cuts "goes beyond laughable. It's unconscionable."
But Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said spending rescissions were a common practice in past decades and were usually done on a bipartisan basis.
"Returning unused taxpayer money isn't just good government. In a republic, it should be expected. It should be the norm," Lee said.
Burr's opposition was unexpected and came after he was not guaranteed a vote on his amendment to protect funding for land and water conservation. The rescissions package included $16 million in land and water conservation funds designated for the Forest Service and promised to specific projects.
Burr and other senators led a bipartisan news conference Wednesday to mark 100 days until the conservation program expires unless Congress votes to reauthorize it. The 54-year-old fund boosts outdoor recreation, conservation and preservation nationwide while supporting millions of jobs and contributing billions of dollars to the U.S. economy, Burr said.
Collins said in a statement Wednesday that the rescissions package was unnecessary.
"My belief is that it's the job of Congress to comb through these accounts, and that's what we do on the [Senate] Appropriations Committee," she said.
She had said she was not comfortable with supporting cuts to the Children's Health Insurance Program.
"It is disappointing that the Senate chose to reject this common-sense plan, and the American people should be asking their representatives in Washington one simple question: If they cannot pass good-government legislation to recapture unnecessary funds, how can we ever expect them to address Washington's staggering debt and deficit problem?" said White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney in a statement.
Trump sought to cancel spending after the GOP came under fire from conservatives for signing the fiscal 2018 spending bill. Using an obscure provision in the 1974 Budget Act, the president can freeze spending for 45 days while Congress debates a request to cancel appropriated spending. A bill making the cuts cannot be filibustered in the Senate, unlike regular spending bills.
The White House initially sought to cancel some spending from that bill. Republican lawmakers said that doing so would violate bipartisan deals they had struck with Democrats. The White House settled on seeking to cut funds from previous years.
Information for this article was contributed by Matthew Daly and Kevin Freking of The Associated Press; by Erica Werner of The Washington Post; and by Erik Wasson of Bloomberg News.
A Section on 06/21/2018
Print Headline: Senate repels push to slash unused $15B