Advocates Find New Footing in Budget Battle

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WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–After six years fighting an uphill battle against the Bush administration and congressional Republicans over the federal budget, women’s rights advocates can finally take a breather.

With Democratic allies now in charge of Congress–and a female Speaker of the House–women’s rights advocates are confident Congress will block passage of President Bush’s budget resolution, which would essentially freeze funding for non-security discretionary programs, many of which aid low-income women.

“What the elections made clear is that most Americans want to go in a different direction,” said Avis Jones-DeWeever, a program director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C. “New members of Congress understand that and won’t be willing to rubber stamp” the administration’s budget in the way that “previous Congresses had done.”

Under Bush’s $2.9 trillion budget resolution, released Feb. 5, security spending would gain an 11 percent increase over current spending levels. Funding increases for other discretionary programs, meanwhile, would be held to 1 percent, a virtual freeze.

The budget also proposes $96 billion in savings over five years in mandatory spending, the portion of the budget that funds entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid, according to Women’s Policy Inc., a nonprofit public policy group in Washington, D.C.

At the same time, Bush’s budget would make permanent the tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 at a cost of about $1.7 trillion over the next decade.

The president’s budget resolution, a nonbinding blueprint for government spending, does not carry the weight of law. But if passed, it would make it easier for lawmakers to enact the policies backed by the administration.

Chilly Reception for Budget Proposal

Democrats, now in the majority, gave Bush’s budget a chilly reception.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, denounced the resolution on the day of its release. And the chairs of the House and Senate budget committees, whose panels are responsible for drafting Congress’ own budget plan, followed suit.

“I doubt that Democrats will support this budget, and frankly, I will be surprised if Republicans rally around it either,” said House Budget Committee Chair John Spratt, a South Carolina Democrat.

Bush defended his budget plans in a Feb. 6 speech at the Manassas, Va., plant of Micron Technology Inc., a company based in Boise, Idaho, that makes semiconductors.

Extending the tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 will continue to stimulate the economy, he said. At the same time, Congress needs to practice fiscal restraint to keep the economy strong. Reducing or eliminating funding for inefficient or unproductive programs will help balance the federal budget, a goal Bush asserts can be reached by 2012.

In fiscal 2006, which ended Oct. 1, the federal deficit was $248 billion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.

“The temptation in Washington is to spend your money on everything that sounds good,” Bush said. “That’s not how you run your family budget, that’s not how this company runs its company budget, and that’s certainly how the government ought not to run its budget.”

Spending Irks Fiscal Critics

Brian Riedl, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., said the president’s budget does not go far enough in curbing spending.

“Federal spending is out of control,” Riedl said. Unless the federal government dramatically scales back spending, the government will have to choose between massive cuts in federal programs or huge tax increases, he warned.

Since Bush took office in 2001, federal outlays have risen 54 percent, according to Chris Edwards, a scholar at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C. Much of the surge can be attributed to increased spending on defense and homeland security and on the new prescription drug benefit under Medicare. In response, women’s rights advocates say spending cuts place too heavy a burden on the poor, especially women and children. Additional tax cuts, meanwhile, would deprive the government of revenue and exacerbate pressure to make more spending cuts.

“The budget is very much deja vu all over again,” said Joan Entmacher, a budget expert at the National Women’s Law Center, an advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.

“It’s deep cuts in domestic programs that are especially important to low-income women. It’s tax cuts for the very, very wealthy at the top of the priorities list. And fundamentally, it reflects the same twisted priorities that the president’s past budgets have.”

Among the prospective casualties are programs in health coverage that disproportionately affect women because they are more likely to live in poverty and hold low-wage jobs with little or no benefits.

Health Programs Face Cuts

Under the president’s budget, the government would cut spending on Medicaid by $26 billion over the next five years, according to the National Women’s Law Center. These cuts are likely to further reduce services and narrow eligibility for recipients, most of whom are low income women and children, according to a report published by the center.

The budget would also not provide enough money to sustain current levels of health coverage provided by the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, according to the center. As many as 400,000 potentially eligible children could not be covered by 2012.

Dozens more federal programs that directly affect the lives of women in areas including child care assistance, education, housing, domestic violence and family planning, face freezes or reductions under the administration’s budget.

Other programs, meanwhile–some in politically sensitive areas such as abstinence-only education and faith-based outreach–are scheduled for budget increases. Abstinence-only education programs would get $191 million in fiscal 2008, $28 million more than fiscal 2006, according to Women’s Policy Inc. And faith-based programs would get $126 million, $11 million more than fiscal 2006.

In contrast to previous years, women’s rights advocates–along with a coalition of other progressive groups–are taking an offensive tack.

“Instead of fighting cuts, we can talk about what we need,” Entmacher said.

The Emergency Campaign for America’s Future, a coalition of 40 groups in 31 states, is asking Congress to oppose further tax cuts and to appropriate $450 billion in funding for domestic discretionary programs, $58 billion more than the administration has asked for. The coalition will lobby Congress through petitions, letter-writing campaigns and other grassroots organizing methods.

Still, advocates aren’t overly optimistic they’ll get all they want out of a Congress that is still paying for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and continues to face deficits. And in advance of the 2008 elections, Democrats may be reluctant to vote for significant spending increases to avoid the “tax and spend” label, Jones-DeWeever said.

“The days of the huge budget surpluses are long gone,” Jones-DeWeever said. “Given that reality, Democrats do have to work within an environment that is very restrictive of their freedom to be able to support things that they might very well want to support. At best, they might be able to lessen the severity of the budget ax.”

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

For more information:

“Bush’s Budget Alarms Safety Advocates” http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/3064

Institute for Women’s Policy Researchhttp://www.iwpr.org/index.cfm

Women’s Policy Inc.http://www.womenspolicy.org/

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