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House Starts Down Budget Path Leading to Conflict with the Senate

MARCH 24, 2006 -- The House will almost certainly take a tougher position than the Senate on both discretionary and entitlement spending in its version of the fiscal 2007 budget resolution.

That likely scenario will begin to play out when the House Budget Committee is expected to mark up on March 30 or 31 a budget plan that will likely attempt to trim mandatory spending programs while holding the line on discretionary spending.

Bowing to opposition within their own caucus, Senate Republican leaders abandoned efforts to trim entitlements in the budget resolution the Senate adopted March 16. Floor amendments added more than $16 billion in discretionary spending flexibility above the $873 billion cap sought by the White House, including $7 billion in advance appropriations counted as fiscal 2008 spending.

House conservatives want a tighter discretionary cap, as well as cuts in entitlement spending for a second straight year. House moderates, however, are balking at attempts to cut Medicare and Medicaid and oppose the Senate resolution's plan for a filibuster-proof reconciliation bill that would open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling.

House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, says ANWR drilling will not be part of the budget resolution he brings before his committee. Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., whose panel has jurisdiction over Medicare, has said he does not expect to see Medicare provisions.

That would leave budget writers with little flexibility to put together a package of entitlement savings. They might be able to propose $10 billion or a bit more over five years—perhaps enough to appease conservatives without driving away moderate Republicans nervous about election-year cuts in social programs.

"Why send them home with pain?" asked Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership, which represents moderate GOP lawmakers. "It's already potentially going to be a tough election year, why make it worse? If we don't get reelected, we don't maintain a majority. Very simple."

But conservative Mike Pence, R-Ind., chairman of the Republican Study Committee, and his allies have put GOP leaders on notice that they are unhappy with this year's lack of budget-cutting fervor. Nineteen House Republicans voted against the $92 billion package of hurricane relief and war funding (HR 4939) the House passed on March 16, citing a lack of offsetting cuts in other spending. A similar break in GOP ranks—whether by moderates or conservatives—would almost certainly sink a budget resolution, because few if any Democrats are expected to support a GOP-drafted plan.

Only one Senate Democrat, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, voted for that chamber's budget resolution (S Con Res 83).

Instead of deep budget cuts, conservatives may have better luck bargaining for tight budget rules intended to clamp down on funding earmarks and other spending. House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he expects a package of budget rule changes to move in tandem with the budget resolution, although no decisions have been provided on what such a package will contain or when it will advance.

One proposed rule change is the line-item rescission authority proposed by President Bush and embraced by House and Senate GOP leaders and some Democrats (HR 4890, S 2381). But that plan is opposed by Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif.

House Democrats will push their own budget alternatives and rule changes. Conservative Blue Dog Democrats have for years tried to add rule changes to budget resolutions. They would require written justifications for earmarks, impose penalties on agencies that flunk audits and scrap the politically convenient "Gephardt Rule" that allows House members to avoid voting on measures that increase the federal debt limit.

The Democrats will try to paint a Republican-backed budget resolution as stingy toward important programs while full of red ink.

Appropriators will ultimately decide how to allocate discretionary spending under the budget resolution's cap. But if they follow Bush's plan, education, health, and other domestic programs will be targeted for deep cuts.

"It's our view that the president's budget and what we anticipate the House Republican budget to be . . . share the same flaws—large, large deficits, huge tax cuts, and big cuts to critical services," said Tom Kahn, Democratic staff director at the House Budget Committee.

Looking ahead to a budget resolution conference, the discretionary spending cap, ANWR drilling, and any House-proposed entitlement cuts will be the chief areas of debate.

It will likely prove difficult to win House adoption of a budget resolution conference report that includes ANWR, unless Republican leaders can strike a bargain with pro-ANWR Gulf Coast Democrats by offering additional aid to the hurricane-damaged region. That strategy succeeded in netting Landrieu's vote in the Senate.

Two dozen House Republicans are on record in opposition to including ANWR in the budget resolution. Their votes would be enough to prevent adoption of the budget resolution unless Democratic support is found.

"We hope ANWR is off the table," Resnick said.

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