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Republicans in Congress Propose Budget Cuts to Fund Storm Relief

By Carl Hulse
THE NEW YORK TIMES


WASHINGTON

Jettisoning earlier reservations, congressional Republican leaders say they intend to cut spending to pay for hurricane relief along the Gulf Coast, setting up a major confrontation over what programs to pick and how deep the reductions.

Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, chairman of the House Budget Committee, called on Thursday for across-the-board spending cuts and urged lawmakers to increase the savings Republicans hope to gain from a budget bill this fall to a minimum of $50 billion, from $35 billion.

“We’d better get started, and we’d better do it now,” Nussle said.

Senate Republican leaders have joined in, directing their committee chairmen to find more than $35 billion in savings while establishing a task force to identify ways to pay for the back-to-back hurricanes.

“Congress needs to make tough choices to ensure that the federal response to these disasters is responsible,” the full Senate majority leadership said in a letter to the chairmen.

It is a marked change in tone from the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina, when Congress rushed through more than $60 billion in aid and Republican leaders were lukewarm to the idea of spending cuts to compensate. But Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said the mood had shifted when lawmakers focused on the monumental costs.

President Bush also contributed to the push for cuts when he told reporters this week that “Congress needs to pay for as much of the hurricane relief as possible by cutting spending,” and promised to work with lawmakers to identify ways to save.

But getting behind the idea of cuts is much easier than enacting them. Democrats and some Republicans are certain to oppose many of the ideas, particularly those that would scale back spending on programs for the poor, among the hardest hit by the storm. The difficulty was illustrated Thursday when the Senate Agriculture Committee was forced to cancel a session to consider $3 billion in cuts — including $574 million for food stamps — after disagreements erupted.

“As usual, the prime targets are the poor and others who rely on federal programs for their health, education, disability, agriculture, and veterans’ benefits,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the senior Democrat on the Agriculture Committee.

At the same time, lawmakers from Louisiana and elsewhere continue to clamor for more relief.

On Thursday night, as part of a package of bills, the House approved $500 million in aid to Hurricane Katrina victims. The aid, which would help states pay unemployment benefits to storm victims, would be financed by stopping federal payments for impotence drugs.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Finance Committee, assailed the White House at a hearing on Thursday with Treasury Secretary John W. Snow. Grassley accused the administration of trying to scuttle his plan to extend federal Medicaid benefits to hurricane victims whose incomes are at poverty level and to have the federal government pick up the full cost of those benefits for the next five months.