House barely OKs spending measure

$602 billion compromise bill passes by 2 votes


WASHINGTON -- The House, which a month ago rejected a compromise bill to reduce spending, reversed course yesterday and approved a $602 billion measure that would cut or freeze funding for an array of health, education and labor programs, but a two-vote margin of passage signified the challenge facing Republican leaders in their drive to lower the federal budget deficit.

The bill, which would cut spending on these programs by about $1.4 billion from last year's level, now goes to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain.

The House's 215-213 approval of the bill came a month after the GOP leadership was dealt an embarrassing defeat when 22 of its members joined all Democrats in voting against the measure. That marked the first time since Republicans took control of the chamber a decade ago that the House had rejected a compromise with the Senate on a spending bill.

Yesterday, every Democrat again voted no, objecting that the legislation would make the first cut in education spending in a decade and shortchanged such programs as aid to low-income families for their heating bills. They also said that spending cuts were being considered just a week after the House passed $94 billion in tax cuts.

Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said the specific cuts in this bill -- along with an expected GOP effort to enact across-the-board reductions in spending before adjourning for the year -- reflected GOP "Scrooge-onomics."

"The holidays are supposed to be a time of generosity -- a time when Santa Claus fills children's stockings," Obey said. "Instead, this Congress is emptying them in order to provide a tax cut that gives 50 percent of the benefit to people making more than $1 million."

But Republican lawmakers said the education cuts came after years of increases in federal aid to education and said the bill provided targeted increases to education programs, such as $100 million for an initiative to develop "innovative performance-based compensation systems for teachers and principals who raise student academic achievement."

This time, all but 12 Republicans voted for the measure. Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett and Wayne T. Gilchrest -- both Maryland Republicans -- supported the measure.

But the tweaks that the GOP leaders were forced to make to secure the additional votes underscored the problem they face in trying to complete work on a separate bill that would cut spending by as much as $50 billion over the next five years, increasingly dimming the prospects they will complete the measure before adjourning for the year.

The divisions were apparent as dueling Republican factions circulated letters taking opposite stands on whether a final budget-cutting bill should include a Senate provision that would authorize energy exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The California delegation split along party lines.

The annual spending bill for health, education and labor programs -- the biggest of the annual spending bills to come before Congress -- differs only in a few small ways from the version that the House voted down last month.

To win the votes of rural-district Republicans who had previously opposed the bill, GOP leaders shifted money to provide an additional $90 million for rural health care. They came up with the additional money by cutting funding to prepare for a possible flu pandemic but pledged to seek to restore the money in a future spending bill.

They also restored $90 million to pay for Medicare coverage for erectile dysfunction drugs, such as Viagra. Opponents of the cut said it could lead to breach-of-contract lawsuits against the government.

Still in the bill are cuts in a wide range of programs, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Head Start and grants for safe schools and drug-free schools. Other programs, such as community services block grants and assistance to needy families for heating bills, are frozen at their 2005 levels.

But in a further reflection of the divisions within the GOP, the spending bill also includes funding for a number of programs that President Bush targeted for cuts or elimination, such as $21 million for the National Writing Project, a program championed by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican, to help teachers turn elementary and secondary pupils into better writers.

Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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