WASHINGTON — After the House approved the largest federal spending reductions in decades, Americans on the losing end have awakened to the ramifications of deep cuts in programs and are beginning a nationwide backlash as Congress works to stave off a potential government shutdown.
least 10 states, mothers with toddlers in tow protested the potential loss of Head Start preschools, which could be forced to cut enrollment by 200,000. Sheriffs appealed for the continuation of law enforcement assistance. Newspaper ads, letters and Internet appeals warned the cuts could hurt large groups of vulnerable Americans.
Job counselors said they would be powerless to train 14 million Americans still out of work. Mayors and other local elected officials were fighting to save programs that would build infrastructure and care for their most vulnerable citizens.
“We don’t think the American people want to do less to prevent kids from getting asthma,” said Paul Billings, a vice president at the American Lung Association, which opposes the $1-billion reduction at the National Institutes of Health and the ban on funds to regulate air pollution.
“Cutting numbers on a page (is) just numbers,” he said. “Beyond those numbers are stories and people.”
House Republicans approved a measure this month to fund the government through the rest of the year by cutting more than $60 billion, mainly from domestic programs.
Conservative lawmakers said the cuts were needed to combat record federal deficits. But Democrats countered that even the elimination of every domestic federal program would leave a $1-trillion deficit this year because of other costs, including national security and entitlements such as Medicare.
Still, the GOP reductions remain the apparent starting point in the federal budget debate.
“We passed a historic piece of legislation,” said Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the House majority leader.
Americans have indicated in public opinion surveys that they largely approve of substantial reductions. But when asked about specifics — education, health, disease control — they tend to soften, preferring to preserve those programs.
In this politically fluid environment, with deadlines looming to forge a resolution or risk a government shutdown, congressional Republicans and Democrats are in a pitched public relations battle to win the support of the voting public.
Democrats have employed phone calls and e-mails to pressure potentially vulnerable Republican lawmakers, many in their first terms, into backing away from their House votes.
But Republicans and their allies are squeezing several Democratic senators who face tough re-election contests next year in crucial states such as Missouri, Nebraska and Montana. Those Democrats must decide in the coming days whether to support cuts being demanded by many of their constituents.
As public attitudes remain in flux, Democrats and their allies are working to explain the scope of reductions, their geographic reach and their potential for job losses if federal employees and contractors see their positions cut.
Advocacy groups are mobilizing their members and lobbyists, and planning advertising campaigns to highlight the reductions that could befall their constituencies, including the 5 million women who rely on family-planning clinics and the multi-agency task forces that use federal dollars to target drug runners and human traffickers.
One program, Community Development Block Grants, prized by local officials, has its own Twitter forum, updated by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
The National Sheriffs’ Association is asking its members to explain the effect of the cuts to their home-state lawmakers. “Every congressperson goes home and, when they do, every one of them knows who their sheriff is,” said Fred Wilson, the association’s director of operations.
Public radio and television stations continue to broadcast appeals to keep “Sesame Street,” ”Masterpiece Theatre” and other favorite programs on the air after the House eliminated federal support. More than a half-million e-mails flooded Planned Parenthood offices in the week since the House zeroed out family-planning accounts.
Groups aligned with Democrats are publicizing House Speaker John A. Boehner’s response when asked about the potential for the loss of government jobs: “So be it,” the Ohio Republican said.
Democrats say employees across the federal work force — from food inspectors to federal court personnel — will be furloughed, and the nation will lose the opportunity for thousands of construction-related jobs by halting transportation, water and sewer infrastructure projects.
“This Congress that is supposed to be finding jobs and getting the country moving has instead done the single-handed biggest repeal of healthcare access we’ve seen in decades,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood. “Banning Planned Parenthood will not do a single thing to reduce the deficit.”
Even programs that surveys show have less support from recession-weary Americans — global poverty aid, for example — refuse to go silently. International aid organizations decried the cuts amounting to half of the funding for U.S. international disaster response, like that used in last year’s earthquake in Haiti.
“That’s obviously a pretty important moral concern,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, director of foreign policy and advocacy at the aid group Mercy Corps.
But even as the public grows increasingly aware of the expanse of the budget-cutting exercise, Democrats understand their opening position — simply freezing spending at current levels for this year — is untenable.
Democrats insist they too are willing to cut. But the refusal of Senate Democrats to accept GOP-proposed reductions exposes them to a share of the potential responsibility in the event of a government shutdown.
Both sides are trying to avoid blame for that outcome — and to pin it on the other.