By Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 22, 2005
Senate Republicans, by the narrowest margin yesterday, pushed through a major budget measure that would trim federal spending by nearly $40 billion over five years, but they were stymied by Democrats in their effort to open Alaska's wilderness to oil drilling.
Vice President Cheney took his seat as president of the Senate just past 10:30 a.m. to cast the tie-breaking vote on a hard-fought budget bill that would allow states to impose new fees on Medicaid recipients, cut federal child-support enforcement funds, impose new work requirements on state welfare programs and squeeze student lenders -- all for the purpose of slowing the growth of federal entitlement programs.
The vote was 51 to 50, with five Republicans and one independent joining 44 Democrats in opposing the measure. Maryland and Virginia senators voted along party lines.
Final victory was denied, however, when Democrats used a parliamentary objection to strike three small provisions from the 774-page measure, forcing it back to the House for a new vote, which may not occur until early next year. That denied President Bush a quick White House signing ceremony and guaranteed more division over the measure, but allowed GOP leaders to claim a victory on Capitol Hill in the effort to reduce the deficit.
The Democratic budget maneuver was quickly followed by the Senate's failure to cut off debate on legislation to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. It was another defeat for oil companies and for Alaskan lawmakers who have sought access to the refuge's coastal plain for more than two decades. Despite rising oil prices and growing concern over the nation's dependence on foreign oil, lawmakers still appear unprepared to buck the ardent opposition of environmentalists and allow drilling rigs into the Alaskan wilderness.
After hours of negotiations and a bitter denunciation by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who added the drilling provision to the bill, the Senate voted 93 to 0 to approve the defense bill without the drilling authority. Stevens angrily complained to his colleagues that they were sacrificing billions of dollars in oil royalty revenue that could have gone for domestic priorities such as Hurricane Katrina disaster aid, homeland security funds and heating bill assistance for low-income people.
"I'm going to go to every one of your states, and I'm going to tell them what you've done," said Stevens, the leading advocate of drilling in Alaska. "This was wrong."
The Senate also approved a huge spending bill to fund fiscal 2006 health, education and labor programs, as well as defense authorization legislation and a six-month extension of the USA Patriot Act. The House was scheduled to meet in a pro forma session today, although it was unclear last night how it would deal with the Patriot Act extension and the revised defense spending bill, which the House had approved with the drilling provision before leaving town this week.
The day's events all but guaranteed that 2005 would end in discord and confusion for Congress. GOP leaders have struggled in recent months to corral unruly members, and they had hoped to compensate for a long and frustrating year with clear victories on major priorities.
Bush and Republican leaders tried to make the best of the situation, hailing the passage of the budget bill as a realization of one of the GOP's top priorities. It was the first time since 1997 that Congress has tackled the growth of entitlement programs such as Medicaid and Medicare, which are governed by set funding formulas, not annual spending bills. The president has made changes to such programs a priority in his effort to reduce the federal deficit.
"The Senate vote to reduce entitlement spending is a victory for taxpayers, fiscal restraint and responsible budgeting," Bush said.
"The bottom line is, we stood firm and we made tough choices," said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), praising what he called "a very important and proud day."
But House Republicans lamented Democratic tactics that will keep the measure from being enacted immediately. The House had narrowly passed the bill, 212 to 206, in a predawn vote on Monday, and now, with a new vote in the House coming, opponents of the budget bill -- from organized labor to the powerful seniors lobby AARP -- began gearing up for another fight.
"Today, Senate Democrats derailed the first meaningful entitlement spending reform in almost a decade," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), who helped lead the fight for the budget cuts.
Opening the Alaskan refuge to drilling has been a centerpiece of Bush's energy agenda since he took office. But it apparently reached another dead end yesterday when the Senate voted 56 to 44 to cut off debate on the defense bill. Two moderate Republicans, Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.) and Mike DeWine (Ohio), joined 40 Democrats and independent James M. Jeffords (Vt.) in opposition. The bill's supporters were three votes short of the 60 needed to break the filibuster, since Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a drilling proponent, switched his vote to oppose the measure for procedural reasons.
On the budget, the Democrats relied on arcane Senate rules, named after their creator, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), to assert that four tiny provisions must be struck because they made substantive policy changes without affecting federal revenue. The Senate parliamentarian ruled against the Democrats in their effort to strike one provision, designed to block foster-care assistance for grandparents caring for family members.
The parliamentarian upheld three other objections -- two requiring reports on Medicare changes and one that would have shielded hospitals and doctors from lawsuits filed by Medicaid patients. The Senate voted 52 to 48 to overturn the parliamentary ruling, well short of the 60 votes needed. Three Republicans -- Chafee, Gordon Smith (Ore.) and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) -- joined all 44 Democrats and Jeffords to uphold the ruling.
On the final vote, Republicans Chafee, Susan Collins (Maine) , DeWine, Smith and Snowe sided with Democrats against the budget.
Frist lashed out at what he called the Democrats' "childish antics." House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) sent a letter to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), asking that the House pass the new version of the budget by unanimous consent, ending the need to summon lawmakers back to Washington.
But even before the request, Pelosi had promised to force another vote.
"Democrats believe this Republican bill has the wrong priorities," she said in a statement. "That is why we will request a recorded vote where all members return to Washington to make clear their values to the American people."
A coalition of labor unions and liberal interest groups immediately swung back into gear, drafting a list of 18 House Republicans in hopes of persuading eight to change their vote.
"Make no mistake -- we're going to keep on fighting until we permanently derail these reckless budget and tax cuts," said Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that has largely bankrolled the fight against the budget measure.