WASHINGTON — Big Bird didn't show up on Capitol Hill Wednesday, but Arthur the aardvark did, standing silently as Democrats argued against a Republican proposal to end funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
"We can't leave Arthur and all of his pals in a lurch," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., standing next to a mascot-sized likeness of the popular children's character. "We have to make sure we protect them here in Congress from the Republican attempt to completely and totally undermine the mission which public broadcasting has."
Republicans in the House of Representatives have set their sights on CPB as part of their effort to slash $61 billion from a government spending bill being debated this week. They'd end CPB's funding, which totals $445 million for fiscal 2012 — or 0.01 percent of President Barack Obama's proposed $3.73 trillion budget.
Many conservatives want to kill CPB — which subsidizes the Public Broadcasting Service, National Public Radio and 1,300 locally-owned and operated radio and TV stations nationwide — because they don't believe in taxpayer-subsidized news media, and because many think the organizations lean left.
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With the House speaker's gavel again in their hands, conservative anger still fresh over NPR's firing of commentator Juan Williams, and public opinion calling loudly for a less debt-ridden government, House Republicans are expected to vote this week to gut CPB.
"There are many things about public broadcasting that I like, and the programming, but the question is: Should it be a government function, and should we be spending money for it when it's going to put your children and grandchildren in debt?" said Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M.
Others think public television and radio programming shuts out conservative voices.
"All the problems with NPR (stem from) its wildly liberal bias," said Dan Gainor, vice president of the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group. "They violate the basic tenants of neutral journalism — they're not neutral. Why should they get my tax dollars?"
CPB supporters and most congressional Democrats disagree.
"We understand the challenges to our economy as a result of increasing deficits, but the proposed elimination of funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting will not address this challenge in a meaningful way," Patricia Harrison, CPB's president and CEO said earlier this week. "It represents a disproportionate attack on public media. Further, elimination of CPB would impact millions of Americans who rely on public media for free, quality content that has a mission to educate, inform and inspire."
Approximately 15 percent of public broadcasting's funding comes from federal sources, and the rest largely from contributions from individuals, businesses, universities and state and local governments.
Efforts to defund CPB, established in 1967, are a time-honored Republican tradition. Republican presidents from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush have unsuccessfully tried to eliminate or severely cut its funding.
Newt Gingrich tried to "zero out" CPB funding when he was House speaker in the mid-1990s, but that attempt was foiled, as was a 1997 effort when CPB supporters rolled literally rolled out Big Bird from "Sesame Street" to illustrate their cause.
CPB opponents, not wanting to be seen by voting parents as the killer of Big Bird, backed off.
But pressure on CPB appears greater this time, and it's not coming from Congress alone. In December, a bipartisan presidential debt commission also proposed eliminating public broadcasting funds
Several Republican governors, fighting budget shortfalls, have proposed cutting state support for public broadcast outlets.
"I like PBS. It airs great programs, including, if I do say so myself, tonight's speech," Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said last month in his state of the state address. "But with hundreds of options in the free market, radio and television programming is not a core function of a government requiring $4 million."
Even some veteran House Democrats who've endured the CPB funding wars before acknowledge that the influx of tea party-backed Republican freshmen, the paucity of moderate GOP members and the nation's fiscal woes make this funding fight tougher than previous ones.
"This is more serous, and it is deeper than we have faced before," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore." It comes at a time when lots of Americans are concerned with spending and deficits. There are more moving pieces than we've ever experienced, which is why everybody is pulling out all the stops, because it could go sideways."
The Republican-led House is expected to reject an amendment by Blumenauer, Markey and other Democrats to restore $460 million in CPB funds.
However, the Democratic-led Senate and the White House are expected to defend the CPB. New White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that Obama's budget seeks $451 million for the next round of CPB funding, which "represents his priorities." Obama's Office of Management and Budget issued a veto threat against the House bill this week without specifying which terms in it were unacceptable.
Coincidentally, on Thursday the White House will host "The Motown Sound: In Performance at the White House" as part of Black History Month. Washington's WETA, a PBS television station, is a producer of the show, which will air nationally on March 1.
Even though the Senate and White House are expected to prevent the elimination of CPB funding, some supporters of public broadcasting worry that lawmakers, eager to show their fiscal diligence, may agree to severely cut CPB funding. "I could see some compromise," said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, which annually produces documentaries that air on PBS stations in the state. "This probably is not going to go away."
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