GOP Leaders Agree to $41.6 Billion Spending Cut

By Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 19, 2005

House and Senate GOP leaders agreed yesterday to a five-year budget plan for cutting spending for Medicaid and other entitlement programs by $41.6 billion and a separate measure to open the Alaskan wilderness to oil drilling.

The authority to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration -- long sought by President Bush, energy companies and Republican leaders -- will be attached to a separate fiscal 2006 defense spending bill that has widespread support in both parties because of its funding for fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rushing to get out of town for the holidays, the House moved toward early-morning votes on both bills. The pre-dawn showdown would hide the House votes from public view, a maneuver that leaders have used all year on difficult votes.

A defense policy bill was also cleared for consideration, after Republican leaders decided to strip out a controversial, unrelated campaign finance measure that had garnered bipartisan Senate condemnation. The Senate could act today on the budget bill and as early as Wednesday on defense spending.

Republican leaders hailed the agreements as proof that they were finally getting a handle on the federal budget after a five-year binge of new spending and tax cuts that turned record budget surpluses into a stream of massive deficits. The budget accord would cut less than one-half of 1 percent from a projected $14.3 trillion in federal spending over the next five years. Depending on the outcome of negotiations over as much as $60 billion in tax cuts, the savings in spending could vanish.

Congress, however, has not tried to slow the growth of entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and student loans for more than a decade. Extracting those cuts has been a politically painful process that has divided Republicans and kept Congress in session months after its once-scheduled Sept. 30 adjournment debate.

"House Republicans promised the American people that we would restrain federal spending and reform government programs," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "This bill is a good first step."

"The Republican revolution is back," said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who rallied House conservatives to push the cuts.

Democrats were furious about the drilling maneuver on the defense bill, engineered by veteran Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who for years has sought federal approval for tapping oil reserves in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Blocking Arctic drilling is a priority for environmental groups, and Democrats said they would attempt to strike it using procedural tactics.

Democrats and liberal economic analysts also said the budget deal, although less dramatic than an earlier, House-passed version, would still allow states to impose significant new costs on health care for the poor, cut child support enforcement and foster care aid, and impose new work requirements on welfare recipients.

Stevens's gambit on oil drilling is that Democratic and moderate Republican opponents of the measure will be unwilling to hold up legislation that funds U.S. troops. As he emerged late yesterday from a final negotiating session, Stevens said he could not predict the outcome.

Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) protested the "absolute cynicism" of daring senators to vote against a defense bill, accusing Republicans of violating a Senate rule that bars unrelated provisions from being added during final negotiations on legislation. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) accused Reid of "false bravado" and said he was "frustrated by being in the minority."

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