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GOP takes aim at PBS funding

House panel backs budget reductions

WASHINGTON -- House Republicans yesterday revived their efforts to slash funding for public broadcasting, as a key committee approved a $115 million reduction in the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that could force the elimination of some popular PBS and NPR programs.

On a party-line vote, the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees health and education funding approved the cut to the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes money to the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio. It would reduce the corporation's budget by 23 percent next year, to $380 million, in a cut that Republicans said was necessary to rein in government spending.

The reduction, which would come in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, must be approved by the full Appropriations Committee, and then the full House and Senate, before it could take effect. Democrats and public broadcasting advocates began planning efforts to reverse the cut.

A similar move last year by Republican leaders was turned back in a fierce lobbying campaign launched by Public Broadcasting Service stations and Democratic members of Congress, in a debate that was colored by some Republicans' frustration with what they see as a liberal slant in public programming.

Still, Republicans say they remain adamant that public broadcasting cannot receive funding at the expense of healthcare and education programs.

Republicans are looking for ways to save taxpayers' dollars, amid fiscal conservatives' concerns over the budget deficit.

``We've got to keep our priorities straight," said Representative Ralph Regula , an Ohio Republican who is chairman of the appropriations panel that approved the cut. `` You're going to choose between giving a little more money to handicapped children versus providing appropriations for public broadcasting."

Democrats accused Republicans of trying to gut a bastion of children-oriented television to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy that have been backed by the Bush White House.

``Dick Cheney and the Republicans have decided to go hunting for `Big Bird' and `Clifford the Big Red Dog' once again," said Representative Edward J. Markey , a Malden Democrat who led the successful effort to reverse the cuts last year. ``PBS is right at the top of their hit list -- always has been and always will be, until they can destroy it."

Most of the savings would come by eliminating subsidies for educational programs and grants for a number of technological upgrades.

Jan McNamara , a PBS spokeswoman, said the digital upgrade would have to be funded with money that is now being used for other programs, forcing almost all areas of public broadcasting to feel a pinch.

Paula Kerger , PBS's president and chief executive, said in a statement that the cuts would force the network to ``drastically reduce the programming and services public television and public radio can provide to local communities."

The literacy television program ``Ready to Learn" would be eliminated, she said, as would the online teachers' resource ``Ready to Teach."

The cuts could force smaller public-radio stations in rural areas -- which rely almost exclusively on federal money for operations -- to close altogether, said Kevin Klose , NPR's president. ``The impact of today's decision could resonate in every community in America," Klose said.

John Lawson , president of the Association of Public Television Stations, said Republican leaders are contradicting their own goal statements by seeking to cut funding for public broadcasting on the day the House voted to increase fines for indecent television content. ``These cuts are targeted to inflict maximum damage," Lawson said. ``I guess we'll have to start ringing phones on [Capitol] Hill again."

The cuts are included in a $142 billion spending bill covering domestic social programs in health, education, and labor. Even with the cuts to public broadcasting, the bill would spend $1 billion more in total than is being spent this year on those programs, and $4 billion more than President Bush had requested for those areas of spending. Student loans and research grants to local hospitals are among the areas that would see funding boosts.

The same appropriations subcommittee called last year for an even more drastic cut of $223 million from public broadcasting programs. At the time, Republicans attacked the PBS for programming they said represented out-of-the-mainstream viewpoints, highlighting in particular a ``Postcards From Buster" episode that featured lesbian couples and their children in Vermont.

But, in a defeat for House leaders, 87 Republicans joined unanimous Democrats in bucking an attempt to cut funding from the stations.

Markey expressed confidence that supporters of public broadcasting would have more than enough votes to stop a cut again this year. Their arguments will carry particular force in an election year in which moderate Republicans fear being portrayed as callous to the demands of their constituents, he said.

Regula also seemed resigned to seeing that sequence of events repeat itself, though he maintained that he was right ``on principle."

``They've got a bigger megaphone than I do," he said. ``They'll trot out Elmo and Mickey Mouse and Lord knows who else, and I'll be out there kind of by myself."

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