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From the CQ Newsroom: House GOP Leaders Give Up on Budget Bill this Week

NOVEMBER 10, 2005 -- After a fruitless day of arm-twisting, GOP leaders late Thursday gave up at least temporarily on their effort to push a $50 billion, five-year budget savings bill (HR 4241) through the House.

Although the leaders last night expressed confidence that they had made enough changes to bring their moderates on board and pass the bill, they clearly miscalculated. Steps taken to appease the moderates angered other Republicans, and not all moderates were won over in any case.

The leaders said they would probably try again next week, although it was not clear whether they would have any more success then.

At a hastily arranged press conference, Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said that "a handful" of Republicans still had issues with the bill, but he declined to specify what those issues were. Blunt said that he hoped to bring the bill to the floor next week, but he would not go beyond saying it was "possible" that he would do so.

"We have run out of time today in terms of our members who really wanted to leave or in some cases just leaving," Blunt said. "But also we have not quite gotten there yet. We were not quite where we needed to be to go to the floor."

He said the leaders have asked House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, and his panel "to look at this one more time before we make our effort on the floor next week."

Democrats Crowing
Democrats and labor groups were jubilant. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said the failure to bring the bill to a vote "shows just how bad this legislation is. And it shows a Republican majority in disarray....They know that they cannot, with a straight face, go back home and tell their constituents that they support cutting Medicaid, student loans, food stamps, and other key programs, while turning right around the next week and passing tax cuts for the wealthiest people in America—all the while driving us deeper into debt."

Hoyer contended Republicans were running scared after setbacks in Tuesday's elections—a claim echoed by Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

"By putting off the House budget vote, the GOP leadership is horse-trading in hopes of getting moderates to support the Republican-led slaughter of public services," McEntee said. "But moderates have clearly seen the writing on the wall—uncompassionate conservatism just doesn't sell—and they're thinking about their own political future."

The ANWR Dilemma
Last night, the leadership dropped provisions to allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and in areas offshore, and slightly softened planned cuts to food stamps for legal immigrants.

Blunt said members who had concerns over ANWR and offshore drilling agreed to back the bill last night after the two provisions were removed from the bill, but the count still came up short.

House leaders were hopeful that removing ANWR drilling from the bill would collect the last of the GOP votes they would need to pass the budget-cutting package. No Democrats are expected to support the measure.

But leaders may have conceded too much to the moderates, and in doing so lost the votes of some ardent ANWR supporters.

Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe L. Barton, R-Texas, had said that he would not vote for the measure unless ANWR drilling is included, and House Resources Chairman Richard W. Pombo, R-Calif., also opposed removing the provision.

At mid-afternoon, Pombo called an emergency meeting of his committee's Republicans to discuss the state of play. Afterward, he said, "Nobody is really sure what we do from here. We all decided we want to stick together."

Pombo said that advocates of ANWR drilling had an overriding demand: "The one thing everybody wants is they want to do ANWR in the final bill coming back from conference. That is the priority."

Pombo added, "People are upset. This is an issue we have been working on for a long time....If you don't do energy, I don't know what's the use of doing a bill."

But moderates have already warned that they do not want to see the drilling language in a final bill, and will not vote for any legislation that contains it, creating the makings of an impasse.

Moderates headed into a meeting with House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., shortly after the vote was postponed Thursday afternoon.

While some of them, such as Charles Bass of New Hampshire, indicated that they would vote for the bill once ANWR drilling was removed, others, including Michael N. Castle of Delaware and Sherwood Boehlert of New York, were pressing for more significant concessions that would mitigate the cuts in programs serving the poor, including Medicaid, food stamps, and other programs.

Castle said he hadn't committed to the bill yet. "I wasn't against it. But I had not made a decision," he said. "They wanted to cut more than $50 billion. That's a big number."

Another Try?
Conservatives were still hoping that the bill could be salvaged. "I still think we can get it done," said Steve Chabot, R-Ind. "But it's going to take more time."

John Shadegg, R-Ariz., another conservative, agreed. "The good thing about the legislative process is, unlike a football or basketball game, the clock doesn't run out." Hastert, he noted, can bring the bill the floor whenever he believes he has the votes. "The good thing about this game is that the Speaker gets to set the calendar."

Meanwhile, the impact on the looming $70 billion tax reconciliation package, which Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., had hoped to move next week, is unclear. Blunt said that he would have to talk to Thomas about the timing.

The floor schedule will also be extremely busy next week, with as many as four appropriations conference reports and a stopgap spending measure to address.

House leaders had met throughout the day with individual lawmakers as they continued to try and line up votes. House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., put a safety valve in the rule for considering the legislation by allowing leadership to postpone the vote.

Medicaid, Food Stamps, Education
Some members were demanding changes in the section of the bill that would cut Medicaid spending by $12 billion over five years.

Vernon J. Ehlers, R-Mich., said he wanted changes to protect the most vulnerable, including deletion of provisions in the bill that would increase copayments charged to patients covered by the joint federal-state health insurance program for the poor.

Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla, said that food stamp changes adopted by the Rules Committee Wednesday night amounted to a "grandfathering" of legal immigrants who are current food stamp recipients, as long as they are 60 or older, disabled, or have applied for U.S. citizenship by the date of the bill's enactment.

"The overwhelming majority of food stamp beneficiaries are elderly; they are over 60," Diaz-Balart said. "When you include that with the protection for the disabled, that in my experience would cover the overwhelming majority."

But the Congressional Budget Office scored the change at just $20 million out of the $275 million cut planned for food stamps for immigrants, bringing the $844 million total food stamp cut to $824 million.

That brought fresh criticism from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, which argued that the change was minor compared with the overall cut and would translate to effectively no difference after two years. The food stamp provision would have automatically prohibited immigrants from receiving food stamps for seven years instead of the five years in current law.

Interest groups had claimed such a move would cut 300,000 individuals, including 70,000 legal immigrants, from the program. Lawmakers said they were unsure how many of those people would remain on the rolls with the new food stamp provision.

Education and the Workforce Chairman John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said he was disappointed that House leaders did not include his $2.5 billion proposal to provide those displaced from Hurricane Katrina with accounts for tuition at public or private schools.

The Boehner measure would have provided displaced parents with up to $6,700 per student for their child to attend a public, private, or religious school for one year. But it faced opposition from moderates who contended it was a school voucher plan that would siphon off money that should go to public schools and blur the lines between church and state.

Boehner's own panel rejected the measure Oct. 27 by a 21–26 vote, with four Republicans crossing party lines to oppose it.

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