The House yesterday blew a hole in the Republican strategy for forcing congressional enactment of all spending cuts mandated by the budget, including a 4 percent ceiling on cost-of-living increases for federal pensions.
In what amounted to a preemptive strike by the Democrats, the House paved the way for a series of politically risky election-year votes on specific spending cuts, which could prove more difficult to pass than the one big package of savings Republicans steered through Congress last year and hoped to duplicate this year.
The pension issue comes up for a vote today. Yesterday's action, by a vote of 240 to 170 on a procedural matter, raised prospects that the Democratic-controlled House will reject the proposed limit on cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) and thereby fail to comply fully with its budget target for savings through 1985.
However, there was also progress on other fronts as the House and its committees struggled with spending cuts to comply with the budget Congress approved last month:
The House agreed to go directly to conference with the Senate on the Senate's bill to increase taxes by $98.5 billion over three years and impose major new cuts in Medicare and Medicaid.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a bipartisan plan for cutting $2.1 billion over three years from Medicaid and from federal reimbursements to doctors under Medicare.
The savings fell about $160 million short of the budget instructions, but attempts to make deeper cuts were defeated easily.
"At least we controlled the damage," said health subcommittee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.).
Together with Medicare cuts approved earlier by the Ways and Means Committee, the proposed House cuts in the two programs over three years include $700 million from Medicaid and $12.9 billion from Medicare.
The House Agriculture Committee tentatively approved cuts in food stamps and other programs totaling $4.6 billion over the next three years, far above the required total cuts of $3.3 billion.
The committee, which is expected to complete its action today, voted to cut $1.3 billion from the food-stamp program over the next three years, mainly by penalizing states who have high error rates in approving food stamps applicants, reducing administrative costs and tightening eligibility requirements. The Senate Agriculture Committee voted earlier this month to cut twice as much from food stamps.
The House committee also tentatively agreed to pay wheat farmers directly for the cost of keeping 10 percent of their land out of production, as long as the farmers agree to set aside one-fourth their acreage.
Yesterday's move would raise direct payments to wheat farmers from a 5 percent payment tentatively approved Tuesday and would increase set-aside acreage from one-fifth. The committee approved similar programs for corn, rice and cotton farmers.
The bulk of the committee's savings come from reduced price support payments to dairy farmers.
The Energy and Commerce plan would allow states to charge small co-payments for basic services for Medicaid and strengthen states' ability to attach the property of Medicaid patients to recover outlays under the program.
For Medicare, it would cut payments to radiologists and pathologists and curb increases in reimbursement rates to physicians who bill patients directly.
The Democratic budget victory on the House floor came as party leaders caught the GOP off guard by moving a day ahead of schedule to take up a rule for considering the pension issue under which it would be voted on separately from all other budget savings.
Although the Post Office and Civil Service Committee had refused to impose the COLA ceiling, Republicans were being allowed an amendment to include it.
But, virtually conceding that they could not win on issue-by-issue votes, they accused the Democrats of pursuing a back-door strategy to sabotage the budget, and tried unsuccessfully to defeat the rule.
Despite their earlier winning streak on the budget, they lost by a 70-vote margin, including 30 Republicans who apparently didn't want to anger retired federal workers in their districts. All Washington area members, including Republicans, voted with the Democrats, who suffered only 14 defections.
"I've been around this place long enough to know that there's not courage around here, individually, on these bills to vote them up or down," said Rep. Delbert L. Latta (R-Ohio), ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee. "If you bring them back one at a time, the courage is going to be lacking."
But the Democrats saw courage in a different light.
"You can't have it both ways," said Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Calif.), also a Budget Committee member. "You can't come here and support a budget resolution that calls for certain cuts and then hide from the ability to vote up or down on those cuts."
And, if anyone kills off the budget process, said Majority Leader James C. Wright Jr. (D-Tex.), it will be those who packaged hundreds of pages of budget cuts, involving 436 laws, into one big package that Congress swallowed whole last year.
"If the budget process dies," Wright shouted, holding up yards of computer print-outs of laws amended in last year's budget fight, it will be their "hands that held the dagger."
At stake in the COLA debate is about $5 billion in savings over three years by capping annual inflation adjustments for all federal retirees, including the military, at 4 percent each year.
Without the cap, adjustments would be pegged, without limit, to the Consumer Price Index, which is expected to yield pension increases of more than 6 percent annually through 1985.
Rejecting the COLA ceiling earlier this month, the Post Office and Civil Service Committee settled for token cuts of $113 million over three years, less than 4 percent of the $3.2 billion in savings that it had been ordered to make.
The rest of the COLA savings were to be made by other committees, but their hands were tied when the Post Office Committee, which has jurisdiction over civil service retirees, refused to act.