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Health Groups See Second Chance to Stop Budget Provisions

DECEMBER 21, 2005 -- An arcane Senate procedure may help groups opposed to budget reconciliation legislation rally the support needed to defeat the measure when it comes before the House again.

Senate Democrats delayed final action on a $39.7 billion budget savings package Wednesday as they forced the deletion of three provisions that violated Senate budget reconciliation rules.

By a 51–50 vote, with Vice President Dick Cheney breaking a 50–50 tie, the Senate amended the measure essentially with the text of the House–Senate conference agreement except for the three disputed provisions, and sent it back to the House.

Cheney's vote was the seventh he has cast to break a Senate tie since taking office at the start of the Bush presidency in 2001.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., called the Democratic maneuver a "childish antic," and said he would call House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., to confer.

The budget savings bill, considered under special budget reconciliation rules prohibiting filibuster in the Senate, would make the first cuts in mandatory spending programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, welfare and student loans since 1997.

Organizations representing seniors, health care providers and consumers united against the budget package were reinvigorated Wednesday when Senate Democrats prevailed on budget points of order that stripped specific provisions of the measure, sending it back to the House for another vote.

The delay could give interest groups that oppose the measure weeks to highlight provisions they believe could sink the bill, including higher co-payments for Medicaid beneficiaries and new flexibility for states to change benefits packages that critics say could lead to less comprehensive coverage for millions of children on Medicaid.

Critics of the bill will also point to provisions they say give breaks to the pharmaceutical and insurance industries at the expense of Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.

"I don't think you can overstate what happened today. It gives us another shot at defeating reconciliation," said Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for the Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities, a left-leaning coalition of labor and consumer groups. "The House will have to vote up or down on this bill all over again."

Before that happens, Woodhouse said his group's members plan to dig through the fiscal 2006 budget conference report for "bombshells that will give us more ammunition to derail the bill," especially with moderate House Republicans who voted for the package when the House passed it Dec. 19. New revelations coupled with current criticisms may also influence members who were absent at the first vote if a second vote is taken, Woodhouse and representatives of other interest groups said.

After Wednesday's Senate vote, AARP CEO William D. Novelli said his organization would "work to explain the full impact of this vote to its more than 36 million members," a move that all but guarantees additional pressure on House members to vote the budget package down if it reconsiders reconciliation legislation.

AARP has opposed many provisions of the budget package, including Medicaid "asset transfer" language that the group says will make it difficult for needy seniors to qualify for Medicaid coverage of nursing home care. Proponents of the bill say the legislation will tighten current laws that now allow people to hide assets and qualify for Medicaid.

Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, said Wednesday's Senate action "will reinvigorate our efforts" against the budget package. "This gives us another opportunity to educate our members on how devastating these cuts are to going to be to low-income families," she said.

But such enthusiasm may not be enough to overcome the fact that the House passed the budget bill once and GOP leaders will put pressure on members to keep their votes exactly the same.

"We will do what we can but I would not bet the House on being able to turn this thing around," said Ron Pollack, executive director of the consumers group Families USA. "This is an uphill battle."

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