WASHINGTON–Connecticut’s House Democrats were troubled enough when Republicans last week proposed slashing $390 million from an emergency fund to help the poor with home heating costs.

Then came the announcement that President Barack Obama was calling for even deeper cuts to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP. The White House said Monday it wants to slice funding for the program in half, from its current level of $5.1 billion to $2.5 million for fiscal year 2012.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District and a top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said she had “deep concerns” about the president’s proposal, even as she praised his overall budget blueprint.

Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, was more blunt. “The LIHEAP cut is dumb,” he said. “It really plays with people’s lives.”

The proposed reductions would hit Connecticut residents particularly hard, where many residents rely on costly heating oil to keep their houses warm. The proposed funding reductions come as record snowfalls and extreme cold have gripped New England.

“I’m scratching my head,” said Pat Wrice, executive director of Operation Fuel, Inc., a charitable organization that helps the poor when they’ve exhausted their LIHEAP assistance.

Wrice and other advocates say they cannot figure out why this program is suddenly in the crosshairs of a Democratic president from Chicago, who supported robust funding when he was in the Senate.

wrice, pat, operation fuel

Operation Fuel director Pat Wrice: It doesn’t make a dent in the federal budget, but it keeps people from freezing

“It doesn’t make that much of a dent when you are talking about the federal budget, but it does protect people from freezing to death in our state,” Wrice said.

During last year’s winter, more 113,000 Connecticut households were eligible for LIHEAP funds to help with their winter heating bills, up from 107,000 the year before. And participation this winter is on track to inch up a bit more.

So far this winter, said David Dearborn, a spokesman for the Department of Social Services, 104,016 households have applied for LIHEAP funding, up slightly from the same point in 2009-2010. The state got $112 million in federal funds this winter to provide home heating aid, Dearborn said.

The LIHEAP money is allocated by a federal formula and dependent on variable factors, so Dearborn said it’s not clear yet exactly how much Connecticut would stand to lose under the Administration’s proposal. But in 2008, when the program was funded at the level Obama is now proposing, Connecticut got $64.8 million, a difference of more than $40 million compared to current funding.

Administration officials defended the president’s call for dramatic reductions in the program.

“What’s proposed in the budget would simply bring the LIHEAP program down to where it had been historically,” Gene Sperling, director of the White House’s National Economic Council, said in conference call with regional reporters on Monday.

He noted that in 2008, Congress ramped up LIHEAP funding significantly, “an exceptional response” to skyrocketing energy costs.

“We can’t let the exceptional things we did during this historic recession just be automatically put in our budget” going forward, Sperling said. “This is a tough budget–spending constraint always sounds good in the abstract and it’s always much more difficult in the specifics.”

Still, Sperling left open the possibility that the White House would reconsider if energy prices jumped again. “If there is a severe energy spike and it’s causing significant discomfort to Americans, because of that we will reevaluate under those circumstances,” he said.

Olivia Wein, a staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center and co-chair of a LIHEAP advocacy coalition in Washington, acknowledged that Congress responded to a 2008 “fly up” in energy prices by bolstering funding for LIHEAP.

“Prices were high and there was great concern that we would have to start looking at setting up warming centers in New England,” she said. “The [extra] funding really made a big difference.”

But to argue that crisis has passed, she said, is dead wrong. “That’s not a full picture, certainly not in Connecticut or neighboring states,” she said. “It’s a different reality there.” That’s because while natural gas costs have tempered, the price of home heating oil, which is widely used in New England, has remained high.

At a press conference with LIHEAP advocates last week, DeLauro noted that almost 4 of every 5 households in the U.S. that use heating oil are in New England, and the average cost to keep warm in the winter in the Northeast is $2,000.

She and others are likely to strongly oppose the White House’s proposal, not to mention the House GOP cuts. In a spending bill scheduled for a House vote this week, Republicans proposed cutting $390 million from the LIHEAP contingency fund, a pot of money the Executive Branch can dole out to help states cope with a weather emergencies or other crisis.

DeLauro will be leading the charge against that and other GOP plans to cut domestic spending for the current fiscal year.

Meanwhile, opposition to the White House’s proposed LIHEAP cuts is already taking shape in the Senate. Last week, 31 lawmakers asked Obama’s top budget official to reconsider the LIHEAP reductions as word leaked out of the plan.

The lawmakers, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., argued that millions of Americans would have to reduce spending on food, health care, and other vital needs if heating bills consumed more of their paychecks. Also among the signers were several Senate Republicans, including Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Susan Collins of Maine.

Collins said she thought Obama proposed the cut because he knows Congress would block it. “I can’t believe it’s a serious proposal,” she said, comparing it to “cutting the football team when you know it’s going to be restored.”

Indeed, observers say there’s a strong bipartisan constituency in Congress for LIHEAP, which also provides cooling assistance to the poor.

“People that live all across the Northern tier of the country get it and air conditioning is a huge factor in the South,” said Rep. John Larson, D-1st District. “So I think there’s ample room to find the right coalition to carry the day.”

Wein agreed that LIHEAP is “not a just blue state program.” But she and others still predicted a big fight ahead, saying the significant support doesn’t guarantee a victory at a time when policymakers on both sides of the aisle are looking for big budget cuts.

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