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Nation & World

Mikulski addresses $4B budget gap with gimmicks

WASHINGTON — The Democratic chairwoman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee moved aggressively Thursday to use gimmicks to fill in an unexpected $4 billion gap in the budget.

The move by Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., was met with opposition from panel Republicans who said it violated the spirit of last year's hard-won budget deal.

Mikulski's move came after congressional scorekeepers surprised lawmakers by predicting that the Federal Housing Administration will produce $4 billion less in revenues from the mortgages it insures than the administration believes.

The shortfall means that non-defense programs, on average, face an almost 1 percent cut from current levels.

In response, Mikulski shifted about $2 million in foreign aid funding to war accounts exempt from budget "caps" and also made room for using $2 billion in relatively pain-free cuts to so-called mandatory programs to help finance the budget of the Department of Health and Human Services. She also suggested she may exempt another $1 billion to fight western wildfires from mandatory caps by declaring it off-budget.

Mikulski defended the moves, saying she was using "tools" employed by her predecessors.

At issue is about $1.1 trillion in funding for the Pentagon, domestic agencies, and overseas military operations that's funded by the 12 annual appropriations bills.

The Appropriations panel unanimously approved the first two of the 12 bills on Thursday, a $72 billion measure funding the Veterans Administration and construction projects on military bases and a $21 billion measure for the Department of Agriculture.

The panel also added legislation to the VA budget measure that would give the VA secretary more power to discipline the 450 career employees who serve as hospital directors or executives in the agency's 21 regions. The measure cleared the House Wednesday in response to allegations of treatment delays and falsified reports at VA medical facilities.

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