WASHINGTON -- Scarcely two months after raising taxes by $137 billion to help reduce the federal deficit, the House voted yesterday to jettison a new check on spending that was part of the five-year budget accord worked out between Congress and President Bush.
The Democratic majority rammed the change through over bitter GOP protests that the House was reneging on its word and making a mockery of the anti-deficit law passed in November.
A Republican effort to block the change was defeated 250-162, along party lines.
The non-partisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget called the House action irresponsible and said it threatened to unravel last year's budget deal, even as the deficit soars to a new record of $330 billion in the midst of a recession.
"The package that was enacted in November raised your taxes and mine, and it also promised very significant cuts in spending," said Carol Cox, a spokeswoman for the committee, whose members include former government budget managers.
"I'll be dammed if I want to see my taxes go up and then see the Congress and the administration fail to deliver on the enforcement provisions they promised," Ms. Cox added.
To an outsider, the issue seems arcane: Should congressional economists or the administration's Office of Management and Budget estimate the cost of new benefit programs and tax breaks?
Yet the power to set the numbers is worth billions.
The fate of legislation that provides real benefits to real people often hinges on the numbers. And the numbers are even more important under the budget agreement, because legislation that increases the deficit would now trigger automatic spending cuts.
The budget agreement, which is law, gave the power of setting the numbers to the OMB.
Yesterday, Democrats pushed through a new House rule designed to return that power to Congress.
The rule requires that Congressional Budget Office cost estimates be part of any tax or benefit program legislation. If signed by the president, such legislation would supersede the budget agreement's requirement that the OMB determine costs. In effect, one law would change another.
President Bush, in a letter to House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., warned that the rule change would "begin to undo" the five-year deal to reduce the deficit by $496 billion. He pledged to veto any bill that follows the new House rule.
Democrats said they did not trust the OMB to be honest with the numbers. They pointed out that the CBO serves both Republicans and Democrats and is required to be non-partisan.
"I've seen with my own experience with OMB how they will play partisan games with the numbers," said Representative Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif.
Mr. Waxman, who chairs a subcommittee that oversees the Medicaid health care program for the poor, urged the House leadership to change the rules. Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., also supported the change.
Budget Chairman Leon E. Panetta, D-Calif., said he hoped an agreement between the CBO and the OMB might defuse the controversy.
Mr. Panetta said Democrats warned the administration during the budget talks last year that the issue of who got to call the numbers might be revisited.
But Republicans accused the Democrats of breaking a pledge.
"We're very much upset over the fact that the Democratic Party has decided to, frankly, go back on its word," said Minority Leader Robert H. Michel, R-Ill. "I don't think you can put it in any refined, glossy terms other than that they defaulted on their word."