WASHINGTON -- Despite a day of pleading and arm-twisting by the White House and by congressional leaders, the House of Representatives rejected early this morning the five-year, $500 billion budget plan unveiled last Sunday.
By a vote of 254-179, lawmakers refused to accept the broad outlines of the compromise agreement struck after nearly five months of negotiations by Bush administration officials and key members of Congress. In so doing, they handed President Bush, who had thrown the full weight of his personal prestige behind the deal, the most serious setback of his presidency, while confronting congressional leaders with an ignominious defeat.
They did so even after congressional leaders went to enormous lengths to assure them, in essence, that this morning's vote wouldn't matter as much as they might think. The tally that began just after 1 a.m. took place only after House members had been told that the terms of that deal would be altered substantially in the coming days, as lawmakers move to write the actual legislation implementing the spending cuts and tax increases suggested by the legislation.
"This is only a resolution," said Representative Sam Gibbons, D-Fla., a senior member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. "This is not law."
The rejection was thoroughly bipartisan in nature as 149 Democrats, angered by a budget plan they felt spared the rich and burdened the less-well-off with a variety of tax levies, joined 105 Republicans, disappointed that the package did not cut more spending, to defeat the deal.
It was unclear what will happen next. If the House had adopted the legislation, it would have set the stage for expected Senate passage of the same document today. Later, both chambers would have passed stopgap spending legislation needed to keep the federal government in operation through Oct. 19, at which time the necessary legislation implementing the budget agreement is to be ready for Mr. Bush's signature.
As yesterday's lobbying efforts wore on, however, the White House talked in dire terms about the prospects of a government shutdown.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that without a budget resolution, the president would not support another stopgap spending bill to keep the government functioning when it runs out of money at midnight tonight.
That threat is more serious than his earlier pledge to let the automatic Gramm-Rudman spending cuts go through in the absence of a budget deal: This time, federal agencies would not be able to function, even in skeletal form, and only personnel needed to protect "life or property" would be on duty until some new government financing mechanism could be put in place.
Though congressional leaders of both parties had labored hard to win the support of majorities on both sides of the aisle, the House defeat may have been a particularly bitter pill for President Bush. In an effort to round up the necessary votes, for example, the president and his aides worked the phones throughout the day. The president also invited as many as 40 Republicans to the White House for a morning pep rally.
"It took on the atmosphere of a revival meeting," said Representative Jack Buechner, R-Mo. "After a while, four or five people gave witness. But instead of giving it to the Lord, they gave it to George."
Later, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley went to the White House to secure a commitment from President Bush that individual parts of the agreement could be renegotiated when the enabling legislation is considered. In exchange, congressional sources said, the speaker indicated that the Democrats would be willing to drop their requirement that Republicans muster a majority of votes before a majority of Democrats would support the package.
White House aides said the president agreed to provide that assurance so that Democratic committee chairmen, reluctant to surrender their authority to shape tax and spending bills, would not withhold their support of the package. And so, the speaker announced that a vote for the budget package would not be interpreted as a commitment to support all of its individual parts.
"It was always assumed that the committee would have the flexibility to consider other alternatives," Mr. Foley told reporters.
While the White House claimed that Mr. Bush had made slow but steady progress in his lobbying of individual members, his televised appeal to the nation Tuesday night appeared to have backfired. Instead of inspiring voters to demonstrate their support for the budget package, the president seemed to have unleashed a flood of calls from opponents.
"It was a dumb idea, and the Democrats urged him to do it," said an aide to a Democratic congressman. "The Democrats just will not learn that people don't want their taxes raised."
A top aide to a GOP lawmaker, who had been leaning against the budget package, said Mr. Bush's Oval Office address had "stirred up a hornet's nest. They overwhelmingly called, but they did not support it."