The culture wars have entered the budget battle, as GOP leaders take aim at “woke” spending and Democrats push back with charges of bigotry.

Democrats are pouncing as Republicans sharpen their focus on what they call “woke-waste” in the federal budget, targeting programs ranging from funds for transgender immigrants in Los Angeles to a nature trail named for Michelle Obama in Georgia.

The items were included in a list unveiled earlier this month by Republicans on the House Budget Committee, which identified areas of “wasteful” spending GOP leaders are hoping to eliminate as part of their broader goal of balancing the budget within a decade.

Republicans are defending the focus on “wokeness,” saying they’re working to safeguard taxpayers from a federal government that’s abused its authority with efforts to promote “equity” and “inclusion,” typically on issues of race, gender and sexuality. 

Yet Democrats see something more sinister, accusing GOP leaders of targeting minority benefit programs, not because they’re expensive, but because the fight energizes their conservative base. 

“It’s very exemplary of their approach, which is a blend of cutting support to working-class families while also lacing in bigotry and racism,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a member of the liberal “Squad,” said. The real goal, she added, is “to distract from the actual economic impact, negative economic impact, that they’re having on working families.”

The Republican attacks on so-called wokeism are hardly new. GOP leaders have, for years, accused Democrats in both the White House and Congress of pushing an agenda that both exaggerates the prevalence of racism in America and oversteps in employing governments at all levels to take it on. 

The criticism has targeted agencies as varied as the Pentagon, the IRS and the Department of Education, touching on issues as diverse as military readiness, financial literacy and the teaching of American history. Some charge that deep-state liberals are hellbent on indoctrinating students, soldiers and the public at large with the teachings of critical race theory — a legal theory that has become a shorthand of sorts for any education centered on race.

Since taking control of the House last month, Republicans have extended those arguments with a series of bills designed to combat a “wokeness that has swept our country,” in the words of Rep. Andy Ogles (R-Tenn.). 

The coming budget debate will be the next battleground in that fight, and Budget Chairman Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) previewed the Republicans’ anti-woke strategy with the recent release of his spending cuts wish list.

Among the targeted items are about $6.6 million in funds under a section labeled “stop woke-waste,” which singles out a handful of programs on the chopping block, like $750,000 for “Transgender and Gender nonconforming and Intersex (TGI) immigrant women in Los Angeles,” $1.2 million for “LGBTQIA+ Pride Centers,” and $3.6 million to expand a hiking trail named after Michelle Obama in Decatur, Ga. The spending was greenlit by Congress as part of a $1.7 trillion bipartisan omnibus last year, a bill opposed by all but nine House Republicans. 

Republicans who support the cuts see the programs as a misuse of taxpayer dollars. Some Democrats, on the other hand, see those targets as a form of dog whistle as Republicans use their new majority to pass a series of messaging bills and galvanize conservatives ahead of the 2024 elections.

“I think they cut the line pretty close to — maybe cross the line — when it comes to trying to disguise racism with something else,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who serves on the House Budget Committee. “I think that’s what it is.” 

Arrington’s office did not respond to requests for comment. 

Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), as part of the marathon balloting that won him the gavel last month, had promised a group of far-right critics that House Republicans would seek to balance the budget within a decade. And the Budget Committee, charged with outlining the parameters of federal spending, will launch that process in the coming weeks with the release of its budget blueprint. 

They have their work cut out. 

The federal deficit for the current fiscal year is projected to be $1.4 trillion. And the “woke” projects Republicans are targeting are all relatively small-budget items. GOP leaders would have to cut roughly 389,000 Michelle Obama hiking trails, for instance, to bring the budget to balance — a dynamic that hasn’t been overlooked by Democrats critical of the Republicans budget strategy. 

“It’s absolutely not meaningful at all, except to the people and the agencies that are going to get cut, and I’m concerned about that,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), also a member of the House Budget Committee, said. “It’s not even budget dust, to take that kind of money away.”

The GOP’s focus on “wokeness” in the federal budget comes as Republicans face rising pressure to unify behind potential fiscal reforms amid larger funding talks around the debt limit.

Beyond calls for steep reductions to government spending, Republicans have been clashing over which items should be on the table for possible cuts in recent weeks amid a party-wide campaign to use the nation’s debt limit as leverage to extract concessions from Democrats.

The party has seen divisions in both chambers over where to cut, with different factions butting heads over proposals to scrutinize dollars for the Pentagon, as well as whether efforts to reform entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, which account for a massive chunk of federal spending, should also be factored into talks.

But as Republican leaders work to get members on the same page, there has been some agreement to go after “woke” spending, even amid a larger conversation in the GOP around areas to potentially trim in the Pentagon budget.

Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) signaled support for the push, while taking aim at what he called a “pretty aggressive approach” by the Pentagon in recent years to conduct “trainings that are more in line with diversity, equity and inclusion, which is the buzzword today.”

“I think that, obviously, a lot of that training is both not good for the military and also a waste of money,” he said. “So, I certainly think there are line items in the budget. I don’t know how much they add up to, but I think there’s certainly something to cut there.”

Democrats, though, have different ideas, accusing Republicans of throwing red meat to their base, for political reasons, while ignoring much more consequential issues. With Democrats controlling both the White House and the Senate, they’re warning that the GOP’s focus on “wokeness” is a dead-end. 

“It’s a distraction from the issues that the majority of Americans actually care about,” Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said. “This is a waste of time [that] will go absolutely nowhere in this Congress.”