WASHINGTON — The difficulty Senate Republicans faced voting this week for a bill full of spending cuts is best illustrated on the home page for the Alaska Head Start program’s Web site.
On the bottom of the page is a picture of Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, receiving an award for her long support for Head Start, the preschool program for poor children. At the top of the page is a note imploring Alaskans to call Ms. Murkowski’s office and beg her not to vote for a Republican bill that would cut the program’s budget by $2 billion, or nearly a quarter of President Obama’s 2011 budget request of $8.2 billion. The current level is $7.2 billion.
On Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Murkowski did so anyway.
The fight over federal spending intensified on Capitol Hill this week when two bills — the House Republican version with large cuts to Head Start and scores of other programs, and a Democratic rejoinder with far fewer trims — both failed in the Senate.
As the two sides begin to bargain in earnest, it is increasingly clear that Democrats will be forced to justify the effectiveness and importance of a host of social programs singled out for cuts, while Republicans will have to grapple with the popularity of many of those programs among their constituents, and, as the case with Ms. Murkowski, in their own hearts.
“I did not get caught up in the individual cuts,” Ms. Murkowski said in a brief interview on Thursday. “My vote was a marker for moving towards a greater degree in a reduction in spending.” She added that she was “absolutely” a big supporter of the program.
Among programs chosen by Republicans for large cuts, Head Start is perhaps the most visible and popular. During town hall meetings during the last Congressional recess, many voters across the country, some carrying their children, pleaded for the program. Editorial boards have zeroed in on cuts to Head Start as draconian.
Democrats repeatedly refer to the program as proof that Republicans are being thoughtless in their approach to budgeting. “We don’t face the current deficit because of Head Start,” Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said in a speech on Wednesday.
Head Start was chosen for large cuts in the House spending bill because members of the Appropriations Committee concluded that the program was getting too much money given what they felt was its effectiveness, and that too much of its financing had gone to administrative costs rather than new enrollment. In addition, a Government Accountability Office report last year found eight instances of fraud, in which families with too high an income were enrolled in the program. Further, they cited research questioning the program’s effectiveness.
“The reduction in Head Start funding is necessary and entirely appropriate,” said Joe Kasper, the policy director for Representative Duncan Hunter of California, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education. “The program has benefited from sizable increases in federal funding in recent years, all while the program continues to significantly underperform in certain aspects.”
Head Start has been one of the most studied early education programs since its inception in 1965. With the goal of getting preschool education and some forms of health care for 3- and 4-year-olds while their parents work or go to school, the program has long been a favorite of advocates for the poor and children.
Research on the program has shown that children who complete it do better socially and academically than children not enrolled in the program, and that they tend to have lower high school dropout rates. But the initial test score benefits tend to fade out by first grade, which, combined with the findings of the accountability office, has caused critics to call for cuts.
“There are reasons to think that Head Start may well improve the lifelong chances of poor kids,” said Jens Ludwig, a professor of Social Service Administration, Law and Public Policy at the University of Chicago who has written extensively on Head Start. “There are two questions. One is, should we be defunding the program? My personal view is no. The other is, should we be trying to improve the implementation of the program?”
For some parents, the program is a vital service while they work or attend school.
“We started the program when we were both in school, so we had zero income,” said Jason Mullins, whose 4-year-old daughter attends a Head Start program in Norton, Va.
“We have a public pre-K here, but it is only offered to a small number of kids,” said Mr. Mullins, who just began his career as a lawyer. “Also, this is a very rural area, so there are very few options for child care.”
Darrell Edwards, the executive director of Kids Central Incorporated, which runs the southwestern Virginia program, said that a budget cut would end transportation and other programs for the 436 children they serve.
“We give the school program that mirrors the system here. There are just no other opportunities for these 3- and 4-year-olds around here. With these cuts, there would be kids sitting on the street.”