House delays spending vote

GOP leaders are unable to muster support to pass package of cuts favored by president


WASHINGTON — In an embarrassing setback for President Bush and the beleaguered Republican Party, House GOP leaders abruptly put off a vote yesterday on a bill to cut spending after failing to round up enough votes to pass the measure.

GOP leaders remained a few votes short, even after days of arm twisting and making a major concession to wary Republican moderates - stripping out a provision that would have authorized drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

House leaders expressed confidence that they would have the votes next week to pass the $50 billion in spending cuts, a measure they have portrayed as part of a new, more determined effort to reduce the federal budget deficit.

But the failure to bring the bill to a vote as promised was a remarkable sign of how much the once lockstep Republican team is beginning to lose discipline, as factions are increasingly emboldened to challenge their leadership and Bush.

With Bush's approval ratings near record lows and the party under an ethics cloud on several fronts, rank-and-file Republicans increasingly are looking to their own political interests ahead of the 2006 midterm elections.

The spending bill is proving especially difficult to pass in part because it pits the interests of the party's conservative majority against those of its dwindling moderate wing.

"We just couldn't get it all put together, but that doesn't mean we're abandoning our efforts," said Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, who is chairwoman of the House Republican Caucus.

Conservatives wanted a show of fiscal restraint to appease complaints that the party had allowed spending to grow out of control. But curbing popular social programs posed political risks for the party's most vulnerable members - moderates who represent Democratic-leaning districts.

Dropping the Alaska drilling provision won over some moderates, but it alienated others for whom that proposal was the holy grail of energy policy.

About 30 pro-drilling Republicans met privately yesterday, the day after the energy provision was dropped, and were "outraged that every single Democrat in the House and a handful of northeastern liberal Republicans would block new America energy supplies from coming online," said Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for House Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo, a California Republican

The pro-drilling Republicans planned to seek a commitment from the leadership that Arctic drilling would be in a final budget-cutting bill worked out by House-Senate negotiators, Kennedy said.

Republicans, who outnumber Democrats 231-202 with one independent and one vacancy in the House, needed to get most of their rank and file to support the budget bill because no Democrat was expected to support it. Democrats have assailed GOP plans to follow the budget cuts with more tax cuts.

The fact that GOP leaders were unable to reconcile competing interests was a sign of how much the party hierarchy has been thrown off balance in the wake of the criminal indictment that forced Rep. Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, to step down as majority leader.

Although DeLay still had a role in the leadership's effort to pass the bill, the vote has been seen as a major test of the clout of Rep. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, Delay's successor and a leading contender to succeed DeLay permanently if the Texan is not cleared of the charges he faces in Texas.

House Republicans are not the only ones bucking their leadership and the White House.

A moderate Republican senator today almost single-handedly blocked a White House priority - a bill to make Bush's tax cuts permanent. And the Senate, for the second time, rebuffed personal pleas from Vice President Dick Cheney and passed an amendment banning torture as a tool for interrogating prisoners of war.

Republicans often display more independence from their party heading into an election year, but Republicans say the dynamic has intensified at a time when Bush's approval ratings are at an all-time low and Congress is increasingly viewed with disdain by voters.

"Everybody is concerned about re-election," said Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Delaware Republican. "Whether they say it or not, it's there."

"Everybody is in it for themselves," said a House GOP leader who asked not to be named while criticizing his party. "We're all looking at our piece of turf: It's our way or the highway."

Janet Hook and Richard Simon write for the Los Angeles Times.

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