WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's proposal to cut nearly in half a $5.1 billion home heating aid program for the poor has drawn howls from some of his staunchest allies – Northeastern Democrats.
The region is suffering through one of its harshest winters in years, and the lawmakers say the cuts could imperil more than 3 million families nationwide who need the money to stay warm. With no help from the White House, Northeast lawmakers expect an uphill fight as Congress takes a hard line on spending aimed at reducing the budget deficit.
Democrats from the Northeast are accustomed to having the program targeted for cuts, but the push usually comes from Sunbelt Republicans, not a Chicago Democrat.
On the flip side, Obama's tough line on heating aid helps strengthen his message that he's willing to cut spending to a key constituency.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, one of the president's most loyal supporters, complained in a recent letter to Obama that his proposed cuts to the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program could be devastating, especially to the poor and elderly with heating bills that can run into thousands of dollars.
"It's an understatement to say we have tough budget decisions to make, but there's a ton I'll cut before we slash home heating help in a brutal winter when heating oil costs are sky high," Kerry said Monday in a statement.
Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, where nearly 1.5 million households are expected to get aid this winter, was even more blunt.
"I don't think we should balance the budget on the backs of seniors who cannot afford the rising costs of heating their home," she said.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a key Obama ally on environmental and energy issues, was similarly critical: "We should not be trying to balance the budget on the backs of our poorest families who are struggling to make ends meet."
Obama, at a news conference Tuesday, defended the heating aid cuts in his budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 as painful but necessary to help reduce the budget deficit.
The government in fall 2008 nearly doubled fuel assistance, releasing $5.1 billion to states for the following winter.
Obama said that the big increase was due to a spike in energy prices and that since then energy costs have eased closer to what they were before the 2008 rise. Obama said that helped pave the way to scale back spending for the program to what it was before the 2008 boost.
"If it turns out that once again you see a huge energy spike, then we can revisit it," Obama said. "But let's not just assume because it's at a $5 billion level that each year we're going to sustain it at a $5 billion level regardless of what's happening on the energy front."
Northeast lawmakers said Obama's cuts ignore the slumping economy and the resulting increased demand for help from the poor.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a liberal independent from Vermont, said residents there are especially feeling the energy pinch this winter, paying nearly $3.50 a gallon on average for heating oil, up more than 70 cents a gallon from last year.
It can easily cost upward of $2,600 to heat a home during a New England winter, said Mark Wolfe of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, the association of state officials who administer the program and who oppose Obama's proposed cuts.
About 64,000 Maine households this winter are expected to get heating aid that averages about $830 per home, state officials said. The average annual household income for those getting aid is $16,679, officials said.
An estimated half million New Jersey residents could lose heating aid under Obama's cuts, said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
In Pennsylvania, about 627,000 households are expected to get aid this year.
Northeast lawmakers for years have sought increases for the federal energy assistance program.
The number of households needing help paying energy bills is expected to hit a record high this year for the third straight year, Wolfe's group has estimated.
The association said the number is expected to climb to 8.9 million households this winter, up from 5.5 million in 2008.