DeLauro holds a front-line position in coming budget battles

WASHINGTON–Rep. Rosa DeLauro has snagged one of the most coveted committee assignments for the coming Congress. But it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

She will be the top Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees labor, health, education, and myriad other federal programs. The panel is charged with divvying up billions of dollars for some of the Democrats’ most cherished initiatives–from Head Start to Pell Grants to low-income heating assistance and the National Institutes for Health.

“This committee has some of the nation’s highest priorities and moral obligations–providing health care services, educating kids, fighting disease, strengthening job training,” the 3rd District Democrat said.

But she is taking the ranking-member slot at a time when those programs are directly in the sights of the new House Republican majority. GOP leaders have vowed to slash as much as $100 billion from the federal budget.

And the lion’s share of that GOP sum is likely to be sliced from the appropriations bill crafted by DeLauro’s panel, the subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies.

In addition, this committee will be a hot-spot for Republicans’ efforts to kill health reform. Because the committee funds the federal agency charged with implementing the health care overhaul–the Department of Health and Human Services–it will be the principle venue for the GOP’s efforts to defund that law.

“They are right at the epicenter of the fight” over both federal spending and health care, said Scott Lilly, a former staff director for the full House Appropriations Committee and ex-chief of staff for Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., the previous chairman of the Labor-HHS subcommittee.

DeLauro is planning to be on the defensive in a series of high-profile clashes this year.

“It’s going to be a big fight,” she said. “But I’m very excited about having this job, because this is going to be a big focus of the Republicans, as they try to decimate [key programs]. And I’m glad I’m going to be there.”

Republicans say they’re not looking to “decimate” anything–just restore fiscal balance to the nation’s budget books.

House GOP leaders have not yet spelled out in detail what programs they plan to cut or by how much. In the Pledge to America they released before last year’s elections, the GOP called for $100 billion in cuts, although in recent days, some GOP leaders have said $60 billion is more realistic for fiscal year 2011, with deeper cuts slated for 2012.

Either way, their ax will fall hard on domestic programs.

“We must dramatically cut the massive spending that has dominated discretionary budgets in past years,” Rep. Hal Rogers, chairman of the full Appropriations Committee, said last week as the House voted on a resolution to cut federal spending to 2008 levels. “My committee will begin to make the largest spending cuts in history.”

Lilly, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said that because the GOP has promised to exempt certain programs from the cuts, such as defense and homeland security, “what you’ve got left is about $450 billion divided up among the remaining 12 departments and agencies,” Lilly said. “One-third of that is in the Labor, HHS and Education committee’s bill.”

The Labor-HHS bill is Congress’s second largest, trumped only by the spending bill that funds the Pentagon.

For fiscal year 2010, for example, the committee approved $160 billion in discretionary spending, a $48 billion increase from 2009. That included everything from $31 billion for the National Institutes of Health and $6.7 billion for public health to $14.5 billion for disadvantaged students and $1.4 billion for worker training.

By contrast, the spending subcommittee DeLauro chaired in the last Congress, which had purview of federal food and agriculture programs, approved $22.9 billion in discretionary spending for fiscal year 2010. That price tag was one-seventh the size of the Labor-HHS bill.

DeLauro won her new post when Democrats re-jiggered their committee assignments earlier this month.

Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., the new chairman of the Labor-HHS subcommittee, was not available for an interview last week. But in a statement released when he won the post, he said the panel’s huge budgets have not necessarily lead to better outcomes in people’s lives.

“We all agree that education opens the doors of opportunity and that access to quality, affordable health care can help keep those doors open, but we’ve also seen that so-called government solutions tend to exacerbate existing problems and create entirely new ones to boot,” Rehberg said. “Even as federal spending went through the roof, the quality of health care and education has suffered. We need to spend tax dollars more responsibly and efficiently.  We need to empower communities, not federal bureaucrats.  We need to stop thinking that we can solve every problem by throwing more money at it.”

DeLauro said she and Rehberg have a good working relationship. They have collaborated on country-of-origin labeling requirements, which mandate that certain foods, such as meat and fish, include information about what country it came from (a major issue for Montana farmers). They also serve as the co-chairs of the Congressional Baby Caucus, a group of lawmakers focused on the needs of infants and toddlers.

But their shared interests are eclipsed by political differences.

Last year, as the GOP’s focus on the federal deficit was gaining steam, Rehberg offered an amendment to trim $13 billion from the subcommittee budget, something DeLauro strongly opposed. It failed on a party-line vote.

Now DeLauro will be the one offering amendments–trying to block GOP cuts and protect Democrats’ favorite programs. But since she’ll be in the minority, she’ll probably be on the losing side more often than not.

“It’s not likely that DeLauro and the Democrats can actually win over enough Republican votes to stop” most of the GOP’s cuts, said Lilly. But he said she has a major role to play in setting the terms of the debate as the House bills move to the Democrat-controlled Senate.

“There are going to be strong disagreements about the wisdom of certain choices and Rosa is someone who expresses strong disagreement quite well,” he said. “I think they can help the public understand what these proposals are and what their implications would be. That will play a big role in what kind of compromise is reached between the House Republicans, the Senate and the White House.”

Indeed, DeLauro said her biggest challenge in the coming year is framing this as a fight not over programs but over people’s lives.

For example, if Republicans target Pell grants that help low-income kids go to college, “what happens to their future, their economic future and their ability to get a job?” she asked. “And are we not going to invest in the National Institutes of Health–in the breakthrough discoveries for disease and illnesses?”

“This is not about percentages. It’s not about statics,” she said. “It’s about what the impact is on the economy and people’s personal economic stability.”