The House narrowly approved a broad five-year budget plan early this morning that squeezes programs for the poor, for college students and for farmers, handing Republican leaders a hard-fought victory after weeks of resistance in GOP ranks.
The plan, which would save the government just under $50 billion, passed 217 to 215, with 14 Republicans joining all House Democrats in opposition. Just last week, Republican leaders were forced to pull the bill from consideration after it became clear they lacked the votes for passage.
Republicans salvaged the win this time only by jettisoning one of President Bush's top domestic priorities, opening Alaska's National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, then trimming planned cuts to food stamps, Medicaid and student lunch programs. Those changes pared back the measure's savings by more than $4 billion, and moderate Republicans say they expect the final version will be cut back further in negotiations with the Senate.
On the Senate side of the Capitol, moderate Republicans scored another victory last night, winning passage of a five-year $50 billion tax package that left out one of the centerpieces of Bush's second-term economic agenda. The measure, which passed 64 to 33, did not include an extension of the deep cuts to the tax rates on capital gains and dividends that passed in 2003 and are set to expire after 2008. Instead, the Senate approved a tax measure largely devoted to hurricane relief and the extension of tax measures with bipartisan appeal.
By last night, a victory for the House budget measure had grown vital to GOP leaders, who appeared on the verge of losing control of a Republican conference balkanizing between blocs of conservatives and moderates. Yesterday afternoon, they suffered an embarrassing and rare defeat when nearly two dozen renegade Republicans teamed with Democrats to shoot down a giant health and education spending bill for the coming year.
By a vote of 224 to 209, the House rejected the $142.5 billion measure, which contained spending cuts in many health care and education programs that are strongly supported by moderate Republicans and by Democrats. Many rank-and-file lawmakers were unhappy with the bill as well because it did not contain special programs and projects they had sought for their congressional districts.
All Northern Virginia and Maryland Republican House members -- Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), Wayne T. Gilchrest (Md.), Frank R. Wolf (Va.) and Roscoe G. Bartlett (Md.) -- voted for the measure. All local Democrats -- Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), James P. Moran Jr. (Va.), C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.), Chris Van Hollen (Md.) and Albert R. Wynn (Md.) -- opposed it.
Republicans regrouped hours later to bring the budget bill to a vote after a round of last-ditch meetings won over just enough balking GOP moderates. Republicans framed the debate over the bill as a moment of truth in the battle against stubborn budget deficits, a time for lawmakers to stop lamenting the government's red ink and begin making the tough decisions to slim down spending. Democrats castigated the plan as a blow to the poor and a sham deficit-reduction effort, since, as early as today, House Republicans hope to pass a five-year $57 billion tax cut that would more than undo the savings in the deficit-reduction measure.
The budget debate was marked by acrimony and personal attacks. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) mocked the deficit-minded "Blue Dog" Democrats, calling them "lap dogs." Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.) called the youthful, redheaded Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) a "Howdy Doody-looking nimrod."
Now House and Senate negotiators must reach an agreement on two very different deficit-reduction plans. The Senate's version saves $35 billion over five years, particularly targeting managed-care companies in the Medicare program and largely avoiding direct cuts to the beneficiaries of antipoverty programs. It also includes a provision to allow oil firms into Alaska's Arctic refuge, a measure that powerful Senate Republicans have vowed to defend.
The House measure would cut about 220,000 people off food stamps, allow states to impose new costs on Medicaid beneficiaries, squeeze student lenders, cut aid to state child-support enforcement programs and trim farm supports.
Moderate Republicans did extract some changes ahead of the budget vote. GOP leaders agreed to drop a provision raising co-payments from $3 to $5 for Medicaid beneficiaries under the poverty level, although the co-payments can rise with the rate of medical inflation. They also ditched a provision that would have denied free school lunches to about 40,000 children whose parents would lose their food stamps.
A provision denying Medicaid nursing home benefits to people with home equity of $500,000 would be modified by raising the limit to $750,000.
Last night, moderate lawmakers secured another change that scaled back cuts to the food stamp program. Initially, the bill would have denied food stamps to the working poor who are not eligible for cash benefits under the welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Under the compromise, pushed by Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.), poor families could still receive food stamps if they receive certain kinds of work-support services, such as child care and transportation assistance, funded by welfare. The change reduced the food stamp cut from $796 million over five years to $675 million, preserving food stamp benefits for about 80,000 people but still cutting around 220,000 from the program, according to the Congressional Budget Office and liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Indeed, the budget center estimated last night that all the changes shaved just 2 percent off the cuts initially targeted at anti-poverty programs. But Walsh said he would push to eliminate all the food stamp cuts when House and Senate negotiators meet to reach a final agreement. Moderates also received a commitment that the final version include more money for low-income heating assistance and a dairy-farm support program in the Senate version.
"A couple of weeks ago, I said [the bill's] unacceptable. The natural response was, how can it be made acceptable? Quite frankly, they've come a long way," boasted Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.).
Moderates did not receive such deference on the labor, health and education spending bill they helped defeat yesterday. The proposed spending package for fiscal 2006 is smaller than this year's version, meaning high priorities such as disease research, rural health care, Pell grants and low-income heating assistance were allotted less money. The package also was stripped of $1 billion worth of projects for lawmakers' districts, known as "earmarks," that in years past helped to push this contentious bill across the finish line.
About 30 minutes after the vote was called on the spending bill -- twice as long as the vote was scheduled to last -- acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) drew a finger across his throat, and the defeat was official.
The drama exposed a basic struggle among congressional Republicans as they try to wrap up their 2005 legislative business and look a year down the road to the midterm elections. To reverse declining poll numbers, conservative lawmakers want the GOP to renounce pork-barrel politics and shrink the size of government. But following through means painful choices that will affect important constituencies. Those earmarks -- whether for locals roads, or hospitals, or job training centers -- are especially irresistible.
"We made a serious effort to reduce the patterns of spending in this gigantic bill. Then we made the gigantic and controversial step of saying no to projects," said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "The combination of that was too much for them to swallow."
Under the bill, health care programs would be cut by $976 million, including a $249 million reduction to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the smallest percentage increase for the National Institutes of Health in 35 years. The bill includes language naming two CDC buildings after Sens Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), another senior Appropriations Committee member.
Education funding would decline for the first time in a decade, with Pell grants frozen for the fourth year in a row. Infuriating many lawmakers from Northern states, funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which subsidizes heating bills, would remain stagnant.