Obama to seek $17B in budget savings

May 6, 2009 5:24:46 PM PDT
After a line-by-line scrub of the federal budget, President Barack Obama has signed off on a roster of 121 budget cuts totaling $17 billion - or about one-half of 1 percent of the $3.4 trillion budget Congress has approved for next year. Budget Director Peter Orszag briefed Democratic lawmakers on a partial roster of the cuts Wednesday before a public release on Thursday. Obama also is fleshing out the details of the $1.3 trillion portion of the budget that he requested Congress pass through appropriations bills for the budget year beginning Oct. 1.

Some of the cuts are sure to rankle lawmakers, such as the elimination of the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, which gives money to states to help defray the cost of incarcerating illegal immigrants who commit crimes. President George W. Bush tried and failed to kill the $400 million program several times.

A senior White House official said the cuts would total $17 billion, with about half the savings coming from the Pentagon budget, and the other half from domestic programs. Most of the savings, $11.5 billion, would come from appropriated programs.

Obama has said repeatedly his administration will go through the budget "line by line" to eliminate waste. But the resulting savings are relatively minor compared with the government's fiscal woes, especially a deficit that's likely to exceed $1.5 trillion this year.

"This is an important step in the process, but it's only a step in the process," a senior administration official told reporters. "Our effort to find efficiencies in the federal government are going to continue."

The officials spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss the proposal before it's made public Thursday.

Republicans weren't impressed with the budget cuts.

"While we appreciate the newfound attention to saving taxpayer dollars from this administration, we respectfully suggested that we should do far more," House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said.

Many of the cuts mirror those proposed previously by Bush but largely rejected by Congresses controlled by both Republicans and Democrats.

"Yes, some of these things have been tried before, but it adds a lot of weight when the president specifically targets something," Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said.

Most of the defense cuts - including ending production of the F-22 fighter and killing a much-maligned replacement helicopter fleet for the president - have been announced previously by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Obama also is likely to submit a $130 billion request for military and diplomatic operations in Iraq and Afghanistan next year, which may not be adequate considering the increase in the tempo of operations in Afghanistan.

Congress is working on Obama's $84.9 billion request for war funding for the remainder of 2009, with the House Appropriations Committee set to vote Thursday on a $94.2 billion bill that adds money for foreign aid and Pentagon procurement. Such advanced funding effectively helps squeeze more money into next year's accounts even as Obama orders cuts.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., said Obama's recommendations won't be "universally embraced" but said Congress also would weigh in with savings recommendations of its own to cut spending.

"This is something that's sorely needed," Cardoza said.

In fact, Democrats already have pared about $10 billion from Obama's appropriations requests in passing the $3.4 trillion congressional budget plan last month.

And lawmakers are unlikely to go along with a call to raise -after 2010 - per-ticket fees on airline travel to fund airport security programs.

In a preview, administration officials cited five program cuts to be outlined in the budget document Thursday:

- Federal support for an older aircraft navigation system, LORAN-C, which stands for long-range radio navigation, would be eliminated for a savings of $35 million a year. The system was made obsolete by the Geographical Positioning Satellite system (GPS) and is no longer used.

- Payments to states for cleaning up abandoned mines - mines that have already been cleaned up - would be eliminated, at a savings of $142 million.

- Ending the Education Department's attache in Paris, at a savings of $632,000 a year.

- Eliminating the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation, saving $1 million a year. The officials said that now, only about 20 percent of the appropriation is actually paid out in fellowships and awards.

- Federal support of the Even Start program would be killed, at a savings of $66 million for 2010. The administration contends that, while the intention of the early-childhood education program is worthy, other programs covering the same ground, including Early Head Start and Head Start, do a better job.

In other budget areas, the administration would keep paying for private-school vouchers for about 1,700 children receiving them in Washington, D.C., an administration official said. Obama is proposing $12.2 million for the 2010-11 school year and would like to continue the funding until the kids in the program graduate. He would not allow new students into the program.

The detailed budget also calls for an 8 percent increase over current funding for border enforcement and security funding, the administration says.

And Obama is proposing that the government provide $1.25 billion to settle discrimination claims by black farmers against the Agriculture Department.