A full-court press by liberal activists, coupled with conflicting regional interests, is threatening to sink a far-reaching Republican budget bill in the House that was designed to slice $54 billion in federal spending over the next five years.
House GOP leaders said yesterday that they will push for a vote on the measure Thursday, and that they are prepared to do what it takes to put them over the top. That may mean temporarily ditching a provision opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling or throwing aside an offshore oil drilling provision to win balking Florida Republicans.
But for now, Republicans concede they are well short of the votes needed to pass a bill that would require longer work hours to qualify for welfare, allow states to impose new costs on Medicaid beneficiaries, cut assistance for child support enforcement, trim student loan spending, cut back agriculture supports, and curb eligibility for food stamps.
The Senate last week narrowly approved legislation that would trim about $35 billion from the budget over five years, but that bill largely avoided the direct cuts to beneficiaries of federal anti-poverty programs contained in the House budget measure. Those proposed cuts have created strong misgivings among some Republican moderates, especially since a five-year, $70 billion tax cut is awaiting action that would more than offset the savings in the budget cuts.
Complicating the problem for GOP leaders are a few narrow provisions in the House bill, such as lifting the moratorium on offshore oil drilling, that have elicited protests from rank-and-file Republicans who are usually in the leadership's camp. Rep. Mark Green (R-Wis.), a leadership ally who is running for governor of his dairy state, wants the House bill to match the Senate's extension of the federal milk support program.
"They are a long way away from getting the votes," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). "Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, whatever -- for every person, there's an issue."
Such misgivings are being exploited by liberal activists, who have organized protests in House members' home districts, phone campaigns and e-mail blitzes. The same umbrella organization of liberal groups and trade unions that helped stymie President Bush's Social Security proposals has turned its attention to the budget plan.
"It's a different group every week, coming in here, making calls," said John Gentzel, communications director for Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), whose suburban Philadelphia district has been "saturated" with budget protests. "It's just one group after another."
House Democrats have compiled lists of committee votes for cuts to agriculture, student aid, child support and health care programs, as well as for oil drilling in the Alaska refuge, that Democratic leaders vow to use in next year's midterm congressional elections.
"This is going to test whether moderate Republicans are really moderate," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "There are a ton of people who will have a day of reckoning coming."
This week, Democrats will hold a conference call with a Wisconsin college student to talk about student loan cuts and will serve lunch at a District school to highlight the budget's impact on subsidized school lunches. They will also stage a mock hearing to tar the entire budget as an effort to finance tax cuts for the rich on the backs of the poor.
For a House Republican leadership that has been buffeted by scandal, the stakes in the budget vote are high. House conservatives forced leaders to raise their targeted budget cuts from the $35 billion figure agreed to this spring to at least $50 billion. When Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) was forced to resign as majority leader after his indictment, he adopted the budget fight as a crusade and a way to maintain conservative support.
That has put DeLay's temporary replacement, Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), in a difficult position, leadership aides concede. If Blunt fails to win the budget vote, it will strengthen DeLay's hand if he launches a bid to return to power. DeLay supporters say the Texas Republican would never let such a crucial vote slip away.
But Republican aides said they are gaining confidence that the leadership will narrowly prevail. Although some Democrats have criticized Republicans for seeking $12 billion in cuts to Medicaid over five years, the proposed policy changes to achieve those savings are defensible, said Sean Spicer, spokesman for the House Republican Conference.
The Medicaid provisions would allow state governments to impose co-payments even on the poorest beneficiaries for emergency room visits for non-emergency health problems and for drug prescriptions not on a list of preferred treatments.
Such changes were proposed this summer by the bipartisan National Governors Association as a way to steer the poor to lower-cost treatments that may be just as effective. "We are trying to manage utilization," said Ray Scheppach, executive director of the governors' group. "The money we save now can help save some [health] coverage during the next economic downturn."
House leaders are also making the case for some of the sweeteners in the bill. A provision to raise funds by auctioning off some of the television broadcasting spectrum would set aside a designated frequency for police, firefighters and other first responders. The House bill also includes a $1 billion increase in home-heating assistance to low-income families for the coming winter, a provision not matched in the Senate. Leaders are telling balking Republican moderates from the Northeast that the bill will likely be the last chance they have to vote for aid they see as crucial to constituents.