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Trump rolls out a 'hard-power' spending plan — and now the budget battle begins

The provocative budget President Donald Trump offered on Thursday presents him with a daunting new challenge: persuading not just reluctant Republicans, but also hostile Democrats.

His odds of prevailing are bleak.

The principal initiative of what aides call an "America First" spending plan is boosting defense outlays by $54 billion while cutting the same amount from nondefense programs. To achieve that goal, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney says the budget will request, for example, cuts of 28 percent in State Department spending and roughly 25 percent in the Environmental Protection Agency.

"This is a hard-power budget, it is not a soft-power budget," Mulvaney said at a briefing for reporters. The goal of the spending blueprint is to impose Trump's priorities without increasing the fiscal 2018 deficit and the national debt.

Where Trump will hit resistance

The president's problem is that a shift in priorities of that magnitude requires legislation that alters spending caps that congressional Republicans and Democrats agreed to during President Barack Obama's second term. That legislation is subject to filibuster. Amassing the 60 votes needed to overcome that hurdle requires acquiescence by at least eight Senate Democrats — and more if some Republican senators refuse to go along.

Republican resistance to Trump's request is highly likely. In 2013, after the "sequester" cuts took effect, the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee called for those caps to be lifted because a spending bill was too austere to attract sufficient Republican support.

The Senate's third-ranking Republican, John Thune, told me last fall "we've done as much as we can" to cut domestic spending, and that Congress now needs to turn toward curbing the massive entitlement programs of Social Security and Medicare. But Trump has promised not to touch those programs, and Mulvaney said the administration will keep that promise.

As a result, the president's budget submission represents a fresh volley in the ongoing political argument on the size and role of government. The proposed EPA cuts, Mulvaney said, reflect the president's views on climate change, which Obama considered a threat to the planet but which Trump has previously labeled a hoax. The cuts in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he added, reflect the president's belief that many anti-poverty programs have failed to produce results.

"The idea that you can pull all this money out and have no adverse effects doesn't pass the laugh test." -Robert Greenstein, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

The administration will propose beginning to wind down federal support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Separate from its 2018 budget, the administration will also request an additional $30 billion for defense spending in fiscal 2017, with $1.5 billion allocated for Trump's planned "great wall" along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Key Republicans such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already said that deep cuts to the State Department, for example, will be rejected by Congress. Democrats and their outside allies will oppose cuts in social programs such as housing even more fiercely, arguing that those harmed will include many of the "forgotten Americans" Trump vowed in his campaign to protect.

"The idea that you can pull all this money out and have no adverse effects doesn't pass the laugh test," said Robert Greenstein, who directs the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

One potential outcome is for congressional Democrats to agree to higher defense spending – which many of them support — but to insist that domestic spending increase at the same time. That's how Congress broke a logjam over the sequester under Obama.

Obama's successor, already enmeshed in a battle over health care, is just now entering his own budget wars.

'America First' budget's key takeaways

  • $54 billion boost in defense spending
  • 28% cut to State Department, USAID
  • 31% cut to the Environment Protection Agency
  • Includes $1.5 billion in 2017 and $2.6 billion in 2018 for border wall

2018 budget blueprint

Cabinet Departments


  • USAID down 28.7%
  • Agriculture Dept down 20.7%
  • Labor Dept. down 20.7%
  • Other Energy Dept. down 17.9%
  • Health and Human Services down 16.2%
  • Commerce Dept. down 15.7%
  • Education Dept. down 13.5%
  • Transportation Dept. down 12.7%
  • Interior Dept. down 11.7%
  • Energy Dept. down 5.6%
  • Treasury Dept. down 4.4%
  • Justice Dept. down 3.8%
  • HUD receipts 0%
  • Justice Dept. mandatory changes 0%
  • Veterans Affairs up 5.9%
  • Homeland Security Dept. up 6.8%
  • Defense Dept. up 10%
  • National Nuclear Security Admin. up 11.3%
  • HUD gross total up 13.2%

Major Agencies

  • Environment Protection Agency down 31.4%
  • Core of Engineers down 16.3%
  • Other agencies down 9.8%
  • Small Business Admin. down 5.0%
  • NASA down 0.8%
  • General Services Admin, 0.0%
  • Social Security Admin. up 0.2%


Reuters contributed to this report.