WASHINGTON -- In a humiliating setback for the Democratic leadership, the House has killed legislation that would have allowed billions of dollars in defense savings to be spent on domestic programs.
By a vote of 238-187, the election-year measure championed by Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., and his top lieutenants was defeated by a combination of 76 defecting Democrats and a solid phalanx of 162 Republicans.
Maryland Democrats voting against the measure were Beverly Byron and Tom McMillen.
Democratic leaders had hoped to shift Pentagon funds to expand social programs, such as education and health care, but opponents portrayed the measure as big spending that would slash military programs and raise the $400 billion deficit.
The outcome reflected the power of conservative Democrats, led by Rep. Charles Stenholm of Texas, to block the plans of more liberal members of their party.
In addition, some Democrats with military installations or defense industries in their districts voted against the bill.
Because the Senate failed to overcome a Republican-led filibuster against a similar measure, the effort to revise the 1990 budget agreement to permit a transfer of defense savings into social programs appears to be dead for this year.
The legislation was opposed by President Bush, who had said that he would veto it.
Defeat on the long-delayed bill to tear down budget "fire walls" that prevented a shift in Pentagon savings to domestic programs was the second recent major setback for the House leadership.
An attempt to override Mr. Bush's veto of a Democratic bill to reduce taxes for middle income families and raise taxes on the wealthy failed to win even a majority in the House last Wednesday, losing 215 to 211.
Even with a 100-vote advantage over Republicans, the leadership appears increasingly unable to advance its high-priority measures in a fractious House.
In the debate over the defeated bill, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., its floor manager, argued: "Let's stimulate the economy." And House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., urged Congress to reject Cold War attitudes and embrace a new world order where domestic needs had greater priority.
But Republican foes, joined by Mr. Stenholm and others, said that the first priority should be reduction of the $400 billion budget deficit.
"When you find yourself in a hole, the first rule is to stop digging," Mr. Stenholm declared.
"The budget deficit is a cancer eating away at our economy," added Rep. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who usually supports the Democratic leadership but balked at this legislation.