The next week will likely determine whether the Legal Services Corp. is forced to make sharp midyear cuts in its budget, as lawmakers and Obama administration officials attempt to finish negotiations for federal spending through Sept. 30.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on a conference call with reporters today that the budget talks are focused on finding cuts in discretionary spending — the large swath of the budget that includes the Legal Services Corp. and scores of other federal programs not including Social Security and Medicare.
“That’s what we’re negotiating right now as we speak,” Reid said.
As part of a broad Republican plan to trim federal spending, the House in February approved a $70 million midyear cut to the Legal Services Corp., the nation’s largest funding source for civil legal aid to the poor. The proposal failed in the Senate, but a cut could still be part of any compromise. The agency’s leadership says the cuts would devastate local grantees nationwide, even as those programs see increases in demand related to foreclosures and the stagnant economy. The agency’s budget is $420 million.
A series of stories in The National Law Journal last month examined the beneficiaries of the Legal Services Corp. and the long debate over federal involvement in civil legal aid.
Neither Reid nor other Senate Democratic leaders mentioned the agency as among their top priorities today. Reid singled out Planned Parenthood and NPR as two programs that he wants to protect from Republican-proposed cuts.
Negotiators have a deadline of April 8 to reach a deal on the budget or allow the government to shut down. Vice President Joe Biden said this week that they’re trying to find $33 billion in cuts through the end of the year, a target that would be a compromise between cuts sought by House Republicans and the budget proposed by President Barack Obama.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has kept up a hard line in public. Speaking of the February plan on Thursday, he said, “It’s our position and we’re going to continue to fight for everything that’s in it.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an op-ed today decrying the proposed cuts. It was written by John Levi, chairman of the Legal Services Corp. board, and former chairman Frank Strickland.
Updated at 3:41 p.m. with additional reporting.