House Republicans tackle the budget

Budget cuts

Kai Ryssdal: Vice President Joe Biden and a group of Congressional negotiators sat down once again today to work on the debt limit. They've promised to have a deal by July 1st that'll let the Treasury Department borrow more money.

The House, meanwhile, is working on spending bills for the fiscal 2012 budget. They've already passed a couple of them. They aim to have all 12 spending bills done and on the president's desk in time for the new fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.

Our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale drew the short straw today -- he's on the budget story. Hey John.

John Dimsdale: Hello Kai. I guess somebody's got to do it.

Ryssdal: That's right. I will confess to you that I am shocked that budget bills are actually being passed.

Dimsdale: Yes. And it's pretty impressive given that the budget process has essentially been busted for at least a half a dozen years or more. The Republicans' overall goal this year is to cut last year's budget by $32 billion, and the spending reductions that they brought up first to the House floor are relatively low-hanging fruit. It's going to be when the health and education and labor bills come up for votes -- probably later this fall -- that we're going to hear the most squealing.

Ryssdal: Well back up for a second, though. What has the low-hanging fruit been; what's gotten passed?

Dimsdale: The first bill was for Homeland Security, and the cuts there were fairly modest, but they were made worse by the costs of the flooding and the tornadoes in the Midwest. To their credit, Republicans have tried to set aside about $1 billion for disaster relief; that kind of spending usually was just labeled 'emergency' and got tacked on to the deficit. But offsetting that money meant deeper cuts in other areas, including for first responders like police and firefighters.

Now tomorrow's vote is on the Agriculture Department budget, and the opposition there is getting louder. The bill on the floor includes cuts to food safety and nutrition supplements for women, infants and children. And it slashes money for regulators of commodity futures, and that means that Dodd-Frank rules on derivatives would have no teeth. But you know, Republicans didn't vote for those regulations in the first place.

Ryssdal: We should point out that Republicans control the House, Democrats control the Senate, which is where these bills go next. What happens?

Dimsdale: You know, the chances of passage there are just about nil. And that's why this impressive display of political will is likely to be all for naught. I talked to William Hoagland, he worked on budgets as a Republican staffer for 30 years. And much as he's hoping the House Republicans have put the budget process back on the track, in the end, he doubts it.

William Hoagland: To their credit, they're being very, very tight. And all I'm saying is, the House is moving, but we've got the president and we've got the Senate still to work with. So I'm not as optimistic as maybe some people, 'well this will be the year that we'll get everything done on time.' I'm not there yet.

Ryssdal: All right John, so spitball it for me: where are we if the budget process once again seems like it's going no place?

Dimsdale: Well that leaves us with more of what we've been seeing the last few years: these huge stop-gap, temporary spending bills that pay for big chunks of the government, they run thousands of pages, they come to the floor with short deadlines, no one really has the chance to read what's in them, and it means members of Congress can sneak in lots of pork. Unless the debt ceiling negotiations really are making some phenomenal headway, and they've found a way to not only bridge huge gaps of how much to spend, but they also have reached some agreement on a process to avoid all of this in the future.

Ryssdal: And of course, those talks on the debt ceiling, and we'll figure what those are when they decide to tell us, I guess. Our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale on the federal budget today. Thanks John.

Dimsdale: You're welcome.

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