Congress approves clashing budgets

Senate bucks president, House on Medicaid cuts

March 18, 2005|By Joel Havemann | Joel Havemann,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The Senate approved a $2.6 trillion budget last night after voting to restore cuts sought by President Bush in Medicaid, education and other domestic programs.

The vote on the budget was 51-49.

The Senate's actions set up a confrontation with the House, which earlier yesterday approved its own version of the budget - one that hews more closely to Bush's initial spending and tax proposals.

The voting also shone a spotlight on fissures in the Senate's GOP majority. Four Republicans broke ranks with their party to vote against the overall bill; seven voted to restore funds for Medicaid but study ways to save money in the future.

"This is not a vote against fiscal responsibility," said Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, a moderate Republican and the amendment's principal author. "This is a vote for cutting the deficit in an orderly way. ... We're letting the budget drive the policy instead of the policy driving the budget."

As votes continued late into the night on one challenge after another to the Senate Budget Committee's proposal, Chairman Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, admitted that the effort to control the deficit - which reached $412 billion last year - was under "serious stress."

The budget sets the basic outlines of tax and spending targets as legislation to fund the government moves through Congress, and Gregg said he hoped that the version ultimately negotiated with the House would be more restrained than what the Senate approved.

If the two chambers cannot reach agreement, they would be forced to go without a plan, as they did last year.

A budget breakdown would be an embarrassment for the GOP leadership, which had expected that the larger Republican majorities in both chambers - and particularly in the Senate - would allow easy passage of the president's proposals.

It also could doom a top energy priority, allowing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A measure smoothing the way for drilling legislation is included in the Senate's version of the budget and is considered likely to emerge intact from a compromise with the House.

The absence of a budget would also short-circuit the House and Senate budget committees' plans to instruct other congressional committees to write legislation cutting farm benefits, food stamps and other benefit programs. Under congressional rules, approval of a budget resolution by both chambers would protect such legislation from filibusters in the Senate.

As a result, spending cuts could be approved by a simple majority of 51 senators.

Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, which lobbies for balanced budgets, warned that the amendments festooned to the Senate bill had increased the chances that Congress would not be able to settle on a budget at all. "It's a classic case of good politics making bad fiscal policy," Bixby said.

During the Senate debate, Smith said the cut contemplated by the Budget Committee was a matter of life or death to some of Medicaid's 52 million low-income beneficiaries.

"Those 52 million people are counting on us to do this right," he said, "not just to do it fast."

But Gregg called Smith's life-or-death claim a "gross exaggeration." He said the Senate lacked the "courage" to make even a "minuscule" reduction in a popular program.

The education funding was restored on a motion by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat. Even Democrats were surprised that Kennedy's amendment prevailed on a vote of 51-49, with six Republicans breaking ranks.

The six were Lincoln D. Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan M. Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. The same six Republicans plus Smith sided in the majority in the Medicaid vote.

The income tax break for Social Security benefits was a Republican initiative sponsored by Jim Bunning of Kentucky.

Five Democrats - Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Bill Nelson of Florida, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Ken Salazar of Colorado - voted for the tax rollback, and a like number of Republicans - Chafee, Snowe, Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, Ted Stevens of Alaska and George V. Voinovich of Ohio - voted against it.

While the Senate made its way through dozens of amendments, the House expeditiously passed its version of the budget by a largely party-line vote of 218-214.

The two versions of the budget allow further tax cuts and trim both kinds of spending: "discretionary" outlays that occur as a result of annual spending bills and "mandatory" outlays in programs that entitle people or groups to federal money if they meet certain qualifications - Social Security for the elderly, for example.

Without specifying them, the House budget makes room for $106 billion worth of tax cuts over five years. The Senate budget, thanks to the Social Security amendment, leaves room for $134 billion.

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