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Balancing Act Tricky for House GOP

NOVEMBER 3, 2005 -- House GOP leaders face a delicate balancing act in coming days as they seek to persuade GOP moderates to support a budget-cutting package while maintaining the support of an influential bloc of conservatives.

Securing passage of the House savings bill—after the Senate's 52–47 vote Thursday to pass its package of $35 billion in savings—will be a major test for House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who took over as the GOP's floor leader after Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was indicted by a Texas grand jury in September.

Blunt and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., acknowledged Thursday that they do not yet have the votes to win floor passage of $53.9 billion in budget cuts approved Thursday by the House Budget Committee on a 21–17 vote. Blunt and Hastert want to bring the bill to the floor next week, but that timing is uncertain.

In the Senate, GOP leaders won over wary moderates by including—along with the cuts—some popular new spending initiatives, like Medicaid benefits for victims of Hurricane Katrina, and by blunting the effect on the poor of some spending reductions.

The challenge is tougher for House GOP leaders, who must appease a large group of conservatives that has pushed for more spending cuts.

After meeting with his caucus Thursday, Blunt signaled that he is willing to make changes to win votes. "We are open to doing what we need to do," to secure 218 votes needed to pass the savings package, he said.

Pressure from Moderates
Already, House GOP leaders appear to be considering removing language from the bill that would pave the way for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) because of opposition from moderates.

The House package, as it currently stands, may have less appeal to House moderates than the Senate package held for moderates in that chamber. The House bill would reduce spending in the next five years in a number of politically sensitive programs, including Medicaid, food stamps for immigrants, and agriculture.

In the Thursday morning Republican caucus meeting, Budget Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, described his plan and led a call and response session, rallying the troops to support his plan. Nussle could be heard down the hall shouting: "We have a plan! For reform! To achieve savings!" to cheers from the assembled rank and file.

But GOP moderates were making no promises as they exited the meeting clutching summaries of Nussle's plan. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., said he had concerns about the package, and said that all elements—as well as a $70 billion tax cut package scheduled for consideration later this month—should be on the table. "Everything is in play right now," Boehlert said. "I'm troubled by a number of provisions in the overall plan."

Vernon J. Ehlers, R-Mich., a moderate, said he would not support the bill if it includes provisions on ANWR drilling.

With Democrats expected to be united in their opposition to the GOP plan, Blunt and Hastert have little room for error.

"I fully expect we'll have 100 percent of Democrats voting against the reconciliation bill," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "We'll make this budget very hot for the Republicans to handle."

House conservatives expressed confidence that Blunt and Hastert will be able to pull together the votes, and said they understand that deals with individual lawmakers will be necessary. But they warned that they will watch the budget scoreboard to ensure it does not change significantly.

"The focus right now for conservatives is that we reach $50 billion in savings over the next five years," Mike Pence, R-Ind., leader of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said in an interview. "How we get there is important, but not as important as getting there."

GOP leaders say they will follow the spending bill with a tax reconciliation bill, which can include as much as $70 billion in tax breaks under terms of the fiscal 2006 budget resolution (H Con Res 95).

But the tax cut bill appears to be in flux as GOP leaders marshal their resources to pass the spending reduction bill and the remaining appropriations bills before Thanksgiving. Blunt said he wants a floor vote on the tax bill the week of Nov. 14, but suggested that a final conference agreement could wait until early 2006.

Some moderates are wary of voting for additional tax cuts as they cut spending. But other GOP lawmakers are eager to vote on the tax cut bill, which has particular appeal to their base. "It's one of the things people are waiting on," said Ray LaHood, R-Ill.

The vote to approve the savings package in the House Budget Committee Thursday illustrated the various sticking points House GOP leaders will have to address before floor passage can be assured. For example, one Republican, Connie Mack of Florida, joined Democrats in opposing the measure, because of an offshore drilling proposal in the bill.

Under budget reconciliation rules, the panel was not allowed to amend the bill. Rather, the committee combined the spending cut recommendations approved earlier by eight authorizing panels and confirmed that they met their savings targets.

The original overall savings target required by the fiscal 2006 budget resolution was $34.7 billion. However, under intense pressure from conservatives, House GOP leaders pressed for savings of at least $50 billion after Congress in September appropriated $62.3 billion in emergency spending to meet relief and recovery costs stemming from hurricanes Katrina and Rita (PL 109-61, PL 109-62). Most authorizing panels exceeded their revised goals.

Nussle refuted Democrats' assertions that the cuts would cause significant pain, noting that the savings amounted to less than one-half of 1 percent of total mandatory spending projected over five years.

But John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina, the ranking Democrat on the panel, retorted, "In truth this bill has nothing to do with paying for Katrina; it has everything to do with facilitating further tax cuts."

To "remove the illusion," as Spratt put it, that the cuts would reduce the budget deficit, Democrats offered a motion calling on the chairman to request the House Rules Committee report a rule that allows the mandatory savings package to be considered only after the tax cut bill has been considered by the House. It was rejected along party lines, 17–22.

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