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House Passes Budget Savings Package

NOVEMBER 18, 2005 -- The House passed a $49.9 billion spending cut bill early Friday morning, with a visibly relieved Republican leadership team corralling just enough moderates to support a package of cuts to entitlement programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, and student loans.

The bill (HR 4241) passed 217–215 at 1:42 a.m., after Mark Kennedy of Minnesota and Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe L. Barton of Texas voted at the very end to put it over the top.

No Democrats voted for it.

GOP leaders agreed to a number of demands late Thursday to win over the votes of GOP moderates such as New York Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, who had been deriding the package as a recipe for the party losing its majority in the House, and Delaware's Michael N. Castle.

A number of other moderates also came on board after extracting promises that their concerns would be taken up in the upcoming conference with the Senate, which passed a far different $35 billion spending cut plan (S 1932).

House GOP leaders agreed to modify cuts to food stamps and make slight changes to other provisions late Thursday.

Boehlert said shortly after 9 p.m. that he was promised that funding to revive an expired milk subsidy would be included during the conference with the Senate, along with additional home heating subsidies for the poor beyond the $1 billion included in the House bill. "Moderates feel we have been heard, we have been listened to," he said.

Steven C. LaTourette of Ohio switched his vote from red to green after being whipped by leadership.

"As lousy as I thought this bill was, I am in the majority and it's my responsibility to help the majority govern," LaTourette explained following the vote. He said he was offered nothing in exchange for his support.

Democrats harshly criticized the plan as part of a two-step budget strategy including tax cuts that would expand the deficit. Mississippi's Gene Taylor, who lost his home in Hurricane Katrina, ripped the idea of slicing programs for the poor to pay for emergency hurricane relief while cutting taxes in companion legislation.

"This is the cruelest lie of all, that the only way you can help people who have lost everything is by hurting somebody else," Taylor said.

Republican leaders, however, argued that they were only modestly slowing the growth of mandatory programs that increase every year on autopilot by cutting waste and abuse.

"You will listen to debate tonight that will sound like we are eliminating half of the federal government," said Budget Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa. He said the cuts amount to less than one-half of 1 percent of federal spending over the next five years.

Conference Battle Looms
Passage of the budget bill was a hard-fought victory for the House leadership team, which has struggled for the past two months to unite the moderate and conservative wings of the party. But the celebration could be short-lived.

The Senate's $35 billion package of cuts carries far more sweeteners and fewer cuts to programs for the poor. The Senate plan also would make significant changes to the Medicare program, which the House version does not touch.

Senate leaders and the White House hope to include a provision in the final bill that would open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling, but a number of moderate House Republicans say that would doom the bill.

House leaders stripped ANWR drilling from the bill on Nov. 9 to win over moderates; it remains in the Senate-passed bill.

The House bill includes a trade-related provision sure to be unpopular in the Senate: repeal of the so-called Byrd amendment, named after Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W-Va. That measure, which has been declared illegal by the World Trade Organization, funnels anti-dumping duties collected on imports and directs them to U.S. companies that have suffered from the unfair trade practices.

Sealing the Deal
House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., tried throughout the day to coax the last few votes needed for the savings package. The GOP leaders conducted limited arm twisting on the floor during the vote, which lasted 27 minutes. Kennedy and LaTourette, two key holdouts, received special attention. Kennedy was escorted to a voting machine by Hastert. Hastert and Blunt also cornered LaTourette. In just minutes, LaTourette, escorted by Blunt, changed his vote.

After the gavel fell, Blunt hugged LaTourette and Hastert stopped him for a lengthy handshake.

Other moderates who ultimately backed the bill justified their move by citing assurances from the leadership that their faction would not be ignored when the bill reaches conference.

If that should happen, Boehlert said, Hastert will have to scramble for votes all over again. "We made no commitments on the conference," Boehlert said. "They gave us a lot of what we asked for."

Boehlert said the moderates couldn't ask for all of the concessions they demanded and then vote no when they got them.

"This moves the process along. It does not guarantee anything."

Castle said he probably would have voted against the bill if it was the final form, but that he had been given assurances that the impact on the poor would be mitigated in a conference report.

Republican leaders declared victory at an early-morning news conference. Clearly elated, they congratulated each other on winning the vote.

"We worked hard to do this," Hastert said.

"You don't just put something like this together falling out of bed in the morning," added Nussle.

"This is the best example that I have seen since I came here of making a team work," said Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va.

Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who ultimately persuaded Barton to vote for the bill, did not appear at the conference.

Barton had vowed repeatedly to oppose any bill that did not have Arctic drilling included. But he reversed course under DeLay's prodding.

Meanwhile, Hastert talked to John M. McHugh, R-N.Y., who had said he wanted significant additional changes to Medicaid. McHugh didn't get them. He held fast, and voted "no."

GOP Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Ensign of Nevada lurked in the rear of the chamber, talking to several members who had been on the fence.

Conservatives hinted that the leadership team's hold on power would be tied to the fate of the savings package, with leadership elections expected in January and uncertainty over the fate of DeLay, whose leadership position was taken over by Blunt after DeLay was indicated in September.

Democrats are likely to use the vote as a weapon in the 2006 midterm elections.

Late Changes
The budget package came to the floor Thursday evening after a nearly six-hour recess that followed the defeat of the conference report accompanying the Labor-Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill (HR 3010).

One change made to the budget cut bill on the floor would allow people with incomes up to 150 percent of the poverty level who are receiving non-cash aid under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program to continue to be eligible for food stamps. Another would modestly increase Medicaid transformation grants to fast-growing states.

Leaders had slightly softened cuts in the budget savings bill to Medicaid and food stamps early Thursday in the Rules Committee. The biggest changes would make it easier for seniors to shelter assets and still be entitled to Medicaid coverage for nursing home care.

The bill as revised would maintain the $3 copayment required of Medicaid recipients for most medical services, rather than increasing it to $5. That would reduce the proposed savings by $100 million.

McHugh said the premiums would still have to be paid by more poor people than in the past, and most of the savings would come from an assumption that people would forgo medical care rather than pay. "I think that's poor policy," he said.

The savings package would preserve eligibility for the school lunch program for people who receive non-cash services under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families at a cost of $28 million over five years. A $20 million grandfathering provision for legal immigrants on food stamps also was added. The savings to food programs had been $844 million before the changes Thursday.

Castle said he hoped that any compromise package negotiated in a conference with the Senate would be closer to $43 billion in cuts. A group opposing the bill, worried that Castle was poised to vote for the package, protested in front of his Delaware office.

"We are going to hammer and make examples of him and every other moderate [Republican] who goes to the dark side and puts the needs of the poorest Americans last—and tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans first," said Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for the Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities.

Conservatives, who had sought deeper cuts, were claiming victory late Thursday. Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, called the vote a "moment of truth for conservatives in the Republican caucus."

Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a member of the conservative RSC, said his group accepted the bill even though the cuts were slightly less than they asked for.

"Our expectations are lowered these days," Flake said. "It was important to make this small step . . . Now on to the 2 percent across-the-board cut!"

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