The House on Thursday only narrowly passed a White House plan to cut almost $15 billion in unused government money, a closer-than-expected tally on legislation that's designed to demonstrate fiscal discipline in Washington even though it wouldn't have much of an impact on spiraling deficits.
The measure, which passed 210-206, would take a mostly symbolic whack at government spending because it would basically eliminate leftover funding that wouldn't have been spent anyway. The bill now goes to the Senate, where it faces long odds.
The deficit is on track to exceed $800 billion this year despite a strong economy. Republicans controlling Congress are not attempting to pass a budget this year.
The package of so-called rescissions has been embraced by GOP conservatives upset by passage in March of a $1.3 trillion catchall spending bill that they say was too bloated. More pragmatic Republicans on Capitol Hill's powerful Appropriations panels aren't keen on the measure since it would eliminate accounting moves they routinely use to pay for spending elsewhere.
The measure includes $4 billion in cuts to a defunct loan program designed to boost fuel-efficient, advanced-technology vehicles, rescissions of various agriculture grant programs, and cuts to conservation programs at the Department of Agriculture, among others.
While Democrats blasted the cuts, the real objection to some of them, such as $7 billion from popular Children's Health Insurance Program funding, is that it would take that money off the table so it couldn't be used later as it was in the earlier spending bill. The CHIP cuts wouldn't affect enrollment in the program, which provides health care to children from low-income families that don't qualify for Medicaid.
"Targeting CHIP for a rescission prevents Congress from reinvesting in other priorities like child and maternal health, early childhood education, biomedical research and our community health centers," said New York Rep. Nita Lowey, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.
Some GOP moderates also worry that they're casting a difficult-to-explain vote to cut CHIP funding in the run-up to November's midterm elections.
"I don't think the vote's intended for people in swing districts," said Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa. Nineteen Republicans, mostly moderates, opposed the bill. No Democrats voted for it.
President Donald Trump is the first President to employ the so-called rescissions tool since the Clinton administration. The obscure process is one of the few ways around the Senate filibuster, though other parliamentary problems could await in that chamber — even if resistance from moderates and Republicans on the Appropriations Committee can be overcome.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office weighed in Thursday to estimate that the measure — pushed largely by White House budget director Mick Mulvaney and No. 2 House Republican Kevin McCarthy of California — would only cut the deficit by $1.1 billion over the coming decade. That's because most of the cuts wouldn't affect the deficit at all since CBO doesn't give deficit credit for cutting money that would never have been spent.
Trump proposed the measure last month, but it was slow to come to a vote because some Republicans came out against it.
The White House submitted a revised package of cuts Tuesday, removing politically troublesome proposals to cut money to fight Ebola funds and to rebuild watersheds damaged by Superstorm Sandy. Trump weighed in soon after to urge Republicans to pass the plan.
It's still unclear whether it will pass in the Senate, where pragmatic-minded Republicans are focusing on trying to get the troubled process for handling annual appropriations back on track on a bipartisan basis.
The White House and tea party lawmakers upset by the budget-busting "omnibus" bill have rallied around the plan, aiming to show that Republicans are taking on out-of-control spending.
"If this body cannot be trusted to reclaim money that will not or cannot be used for its intended purpose, can we really be trusted to save money anywhere else?" McCarthy said.
While some Democrats opposed the spending cuts as heartless, others mostly mocked the legislation.
"After spending nearly $2 trillion on tax cuts for the super-rich and blowing up the deficit, the Majority's bill is like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. "Republicans are trying to trick the American people into thinking they care about fiscal responsibility. They're not fooling anyone."