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Federal spending cuts may hit California farm subsidies, high-speed rail

WASHINGTON — There are about 866,000 Californians who are paying for college with federal Pell grants. This week, they should count themselves lucky.

The Pell grant program was granted a rare immunity card in the wide-ranging budget austerity measure negotiated by the White House and congressional leaders. The undergraduate loans are shielded from further cuts for at least two years. Most everything else is vulnerable.

Central Valley farm subsidies are sure to change. Southern California defense contractors will feel the pinch. California might as well forget about general federal help for the state's overall budget woes.

California, overall, will take a special whack in the budget-cutting to come, if for no other reason than it currently soaks up so many federal dollars. The federal government spent $345 billion in California in 2009, and that will shrink.

And though the 74-page bill set for House and Senate approval leaves most cuts to be decided later, it's a bleak foreshadowing for some specific projects such as California's ambitious high-speed rail project whose initial route is supposed to run from Bakersfield to near Chowchilla.

"If you were to look at this Congress, you'd have to say it will be cutting high-speed rail," noted Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River.

Lungren is among many congressional Republicans who have already questioned further federal spending on high-speed rail. While the budget-cutting deal does not strip funds that have already been provided, high-speed rail's future vulnerabilities are clear.

The initial round of budget cuts, amounting to roughly $917 billion over the next 10 years, will start with new spending caps. Members of the existing House and Senate appropriations committees, including Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, must translate spending caps into specific program cuts.

The next big round of $1.5 trillion in budget cuts will come from a special 12-person Joint Special Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, will appoint three members to the committee, as will House Speaker John Boehner and the Senate's Democratic and Republican leaders.

Feinstein has already essentially ruled herself out for service on the committee, and Pelosi will presumably not appoint herself. Save for House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, there is no obvious California candidate for the panel whose work will hit the state in many ways.

The bill calls for the committee members to be named within two weeks.

The special committee's work, in turn, will constrain how future policy gets set. Next year, for instance, Congress will write a farm bill whose limits will likely be set by the special panel. The result will be keenly followed by California farmers, who received more than $280 million in federal subsidies in 2010, according to figures compiled by the Environmental Working Group.

Congress and incumbents in general could take a serious hit from the partisan brinksmanship. In March, 71 percent of Californians surveyed in a Field Poll disapproved of the job Congress was doing. If anything, that could worsen, based on the past weeks.

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