WASHINGTON (AP) — Can the tea party kill off what Newt Gingrich couldn't?
Federal subsidies for Amtrak, mohair farming, public broadcasting, small airlines serving rural airports and many others were targeted in the heady days of the 1995 GOP takeover of Congress. But like cut bamboo, they grew back healthier than ever.
With budget deficits over $1 trillion, conservative Republicans are trying again, determined to weed out dozens of programs ranging from regional development commissions to replenishing sand lost to beach erosion that they see choking a free-enterprise economy. The ardor of tea party-backed GOP freshmen to make the government smaller shouldn't be underestimated, but most of the programs they want to eliminate have emerged victorious after losing early skirmishes.
Amtrak, for example, now gets $1.6 billion in capital grants and subsidies for its money-losing long-distance routes. Republicans succeeded in cutting the subsidies by 27 percent in 1995. But President George W. Bush encountered a bipartisan buzz saw when he tried to eliminate Amtrak's operating subsidy a decade later. Amtrak runs trains through almost every state, which gives it great support among lawmakers.
"Look, Amtrak provides a valuable service. If you think that passenger rail is going to exist in this country without some contribution from the federal government, you're crazy. I don't know if we're going to have that fight or not," said Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, an Amtrak supporter. "If it's their intention to eliminate Amtrak, yeah, it's going to be a long year."
Republicans also want to chop the $455 million budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which Bush also sought to cut. Conservatives want to quit subsidizing National Public Radio for firing commentator Juan Williams after he said on Fox News that he gets nervous when he sees on a plane people with clothing that identifies them as Muslim.
Many Republicans vowed to eliminate the subsidies in 1995, but the effort fizzled. Six years ago Republicans controlling the House tried to cut subsidies for PBS, NPR and hundreds of public radio and television stations by $100 million, sparking an uproar from fans of "Sesame Street" and other defenders of public broadcasting. It was rejected by a 2-1 floor vote.
Republicans promise that this time will be different. House leaders have vowed to bring to the floor at least once a week a bill that eliminates or reduces funding for one program or another. This week's vote is on a proposal to eliminate government funding of presidential campaigns and national party conventions and save $520 million over the coming decade.
Budget hawks are cautiously optimistic that the new crop of anti-spending Republicans won't succumb to the lure of programs like the Market Access Programs, which subsidizes overseas promotional programs for U.S. agricultural products like Sunkist raisins and poultry produced by giant corporations such as Perdue.
"They're not going to have the same sentimentality about a lot of these programs," said Tom Schatz, president of the Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington watchdog group. "They have not caught the spending disease. They haven't been infected yet."
On Monday, 90 House GOP conservatives sent Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, a letter urging him to stand by a Republican campaign promise to cut $100 billion from President Barack Obama's budget — even though the budget year has been under way at higher levels for four months. To save $100 billion would require cuts averaging 30 percent — if defense, homeland security and veterans programs are exempted from the reductions, as GOP leaders promised.
Eliminating waste is an area in which Obama and the tea party can find at least some common ground.
Obama, like Bush before him, issues an annual roster of programs he wants to eliminate or cut sharply, like scholarships for Olympic athletes and grants for cultural studies.
The annual roster of proposed terminations reads like a Who's Who of hardy perennials that have proven impervious to efforts to eliminate them. They include a "Saving America's Treasure's" program that helps municipalities refurbish old buildings like opera houses; reclamation money for abandoned coal mines; and regional development commissions.
But conservatives on their own want to eliminate some other programs that have powerful GOP backers. Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, for example, strongly supports subsidies for small airlines serving isolated communities like Fort Dodge, located in his district. Latham chairs the subcommittee responsible for the program's budget, which includes subsidies that can run several hundred dollars per ticket.
Many conservatives fear that compromises will include reducing spending on many programs instead of eliminating them entirely.
"When you cut something, it can always grow back," say Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif. "If you pull it out by the roots, it makes it much more difficult for it to come back."
Difficult but not impossible. Mohair subsidies, for example, were eliminated in 1994 when Democrats controlled Congress. They were revived a few years later, when Republicans had control. They were most recently extended by the 2008 farm bill — when Democrats were back in power.
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