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Budget cutting forces GOP into tough choices

Congress' budget-cutting work soon may force a choice between painful rollbacks at Kennedy Space Center and the scrapping of a plan to build a 470-bed veterans hospital in Melbourne.

The possible tradeoff facing these two Brevard County priorities is contained in one of the 13 obscure federal spending bills that Congress must cobble together this summer to keep the U.S. government up and running through 1996.

The bill, up for consideration at a House subcommittee meeting, places the programs in direct competition for money, and it may force a choice to fund one at the expense of the other.

This year, Republican lawmakers are making cuts in the bill deeper than any in recent memory. Exactly where they choose to chop could leave U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Palm Bay, with a lot to explain to his constituents.

Weldon is among the conservative GOP House freshmen who have clamored for broad budget cuts, but is now scrambling to protect his home district from specific cuts.

"District 15 (voters) sent him to Washington to reverse the trends of a bloated federal bureaucracy and a runaway budget," said Weldon press secretary J. B. Kump. "With that in mind, one has to look at how the budget cuts will impact the district, notably space and veterans' medical care."

Kump said Weldon is confident Kennedy Space Center won't be hit hard and is angling to protect the VA medical center in a deal with House appropriators. He said Weldon is willing to spread its $154.7 million construction cost over several years rather than provide one lump sum this year, as President Clinton has asked.

The plan is called the "VA, HUD and Independent Agencies" appropriations bill. It pays the annual budgets of about 20 federal agencies _ a hodgepodge ranging from the departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development to NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Throughout spring and early summer, Republicans have made headlines with their blueprint for balancing the budget by 2002. But the cuts approved so far have been in nonbinding "resolutions" that amount to little more than suggestions.

Now, as the appropriations process kicks into gear, the "Contract With America" finally begins to hit home. In the VA-HUD bill and the 12 other annual spending bills, Republicans must decide, specifically, which programs to cut.

In 1994, the VA-HUD bill alone pumped more than $1.4-billion in government spending into Brevard County _ mostly for NASA contracts. That figure is nearly three times the size of the county government's annual budget.

Five other Central Florida counties _ Orange, Seminole, Osceola, Lake and Volusia _ relied on the VA-HUD bill for more than $240-million in 1994 veterans benefits, public housing money and environmental programs, government data show.

In recent years, the 20 agencies in the bill have competed for annual increases of 2 percent to 5 percent in the overall bill. Even then, the subcommittee has been forced to choose between things such as NASA's space station and public housing or toxic waste cleanup.

Last year, the pot of money in the entire bill amounted to $70.4-billion. Fully funding President Clinton's budget requests for the various agencies would require a 1996 VA-HUD bill of $71.7-billion.

Besides the VA hospital, Clinton's plan calls for a 1996 NASA budget of $14.2-billion _ about $200-million less than the space agency is getting this year.

Even given those budget assumptions, NASA has been forced to announce austerity plans that would eventually shrink it back to its pre-Apollo size.

But the House Republican plan is even harsher.

In order to balance the budget in seven years, GOP budget cutters say, the VA-HUD bill as a whole must be slashed to $61.7-billion in 1996 _ nearly $9-billion below the current level and a full $10-billion below Clinton's request for 1996. Only the spending bill that funds labor, welfare and education programs is taking a hit of comparable magnitude.

Such a huge cut in the VA-HUD bill could be achieved by eliminating two entire agencies _ the EPA and the National Science Foundation _ or by cutting the space agency's budget by more than two-thirds. But Republicans are likely to spread the pain among many agencies.

The bill to be "marked up" by the House panel next week is a first draft that will be changed as the legislation moves through the full House and Senate and toward final approval sometime in September.

Most observers of the process agree that first in line for the most painful cuts will be the poor, who rely on HUD programs for their basic shelter.

Next in line for cuts? Probably the EPA, and then NASA. The space agency, unlike HUD and the EPA, has strong support among Republicans, but its constituency is not as widespread as the veterans department.

Veterans, however, still may take some cuts. The compromise struck by GOP House and Senate leaders June 22 suggested trimming $1-billion from major VA construction projects.

NASA officials are bracing for a big cut in the Mission to Planet Earth program that would use satellites to monitor Earth's environment.