Let them eat coal

Democrats charge that the Bush energy plan leaves the poor in the cold.

Published May 18, 2001 11:43PM (EDT)

The senior administration official who briefed reporters on President George W. Bush's energy proposal Wednesday night made a big show of how generous the plan was going to be for low-income individuals who need assistance paying their energy bills. But at a harsh Thursday press conference, Democratic senators pointed out that Bush's plan would actually end up reducing levels of funding for the program.

The Low Income Home Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, run through the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Community Services, is of immediate interest to Americans hit by skyrocketing energy prices. Last winter the number of Americans applying for assistance under LIHEAP increased 26 percent. At the time, average natural gas heating costs in the Midwest rose 73 percent, while the heating bills of New Englanders rose 27 percent.

On Wednesday, the senior administration official -- noting these facts -- said the Bush energy plan "strengthen(s) LIHEAP by making $1.7 billion available annually, an increase of $300 million over regular appropriations."

The current regular appropriations level for LIHEAP is, indeed, $1.4 billion. But what the official didn't note is that with the addition of emergency supplemental aide to LIHEAP, the program is actually funded this year to the tune of $2.25 billion. Bush's proposal of $1.7 billion for LIHEAP for fiscal year 2002, therefore, would actually constitute a decrease from what was spent this year, if one considers total dollars being funneled to the program.

In that land of nuance lies both ammunition for the Democrats and an explanation from the White House. "The fact is, we have increased baseline funding for LIHEAP," says White House spokesman Jimmy Orr. "And Democrats may want to obscure this, but the president's plan would increase aid to low-income Americans so we won't have to seek supplemental funds in the future." As for any supplemental funds for LIHEAP for this summer, Orr says, "that will be considered at the appropriate time."

That excuse isn't cutting it for the president's critics, of course, many of whom have been seeking even more emergency supplemental dollars for LIHEAP in preparation for the summer.

"The proposal that we got today [from Bush] takes ... $2.25 billion, which is the current year funding, and proposes that we do nothing to add to this year's funding -- which is the immediate problem -- and instead reduce it to $1.7 billion this next year," complained Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy Committee.

For months now, Senate Democrats have been trying to increase the funding -- the "regular appropriations" the White House official gushed about -- for LIHEAP. On Feb. 15, Democrats offered a bill that would increase the LIHEAP authorization to $3.4 billion, including fiscal year 2001 appropriations. The measure was added to the bankruptcy bill that passed and has since sat in senatorial purgatory, doing nothing for Americans as of yet. Another LIHEAP amendment was added to the budget bill, but it focuses only on fiscal year 2002.

"The cutback of LIHEAP right now says volumes about where the administration's concern about price really is," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. "We want full funding of LIHEAP immediately."

Democrats complained that the $2.25 billion has been all used up, and it's not even summer yet. So Bush's proposed $1.7 billion for fiscal year 2002 -- which wouldn't kick in until Oct. 1 -- would do zero to address the very problems the White House official raised when he pointed out the increase in LIHEAP applications.

The Bush plan would increase the regular appropriations to the program by $300 million, as claimed, agreed Robert M. Simon, Democratic staff director of the Senate Energy Committee. But, Simon added, "As with many things in Washington, it's perhaps literally true -- but it's not the whole picture."

And that whole picture has allowed liberal firebrands like Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., to denounce the LIHEAP aspect of the Bush plan as a budget "cut."

"I'll tell you something, in Minnesota, that is a lifeline program," Wellstone said. "It's for about 80,000 of the lowest income households, many of them elderly, many of them working poor with children. Whatever happened to the compassionate conservative that we heard all about?"

Wellstone called the proposed Bush funding "dead on arrival."

Bush's knowledge of LIHEAP, interestingly enough, served in December 1999 as reassurance for those who wondered about whether a then-very green Gov. Bush was up for the job of president. Bush's knowledge of the program -- he had been briefed on it by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. -- was cited in a Washington Post story about Bush's candlepower as a moment when he seemed to be on the ball.

Then, during a question about increased fuel costs at the Jan. 26, 2000, GOP debate, Bush disagreed with multimillionaire challenger Steve Forbes, who said that high on his list of priorities was investigating the energy corporations' possible "price manipulation and price gouging, and you also look at antitrust laws." Bush said his first response was to "make sure LIHEAP worked."

Unlike those New Hampshire primary days, however, in the formal announcement of his energy plan Thursday morning in St. Paul, Minn., President Bush didn't mention the LIHEAP program even once.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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