House votes due early today

Defense bill includes Alaskan oil drilling

December 19, 2005|By GWYNETH K. SHAW | GWYNETH K. SHAW,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Racing to adjourn for the year, the House was poised to pass a final package of budget cuts early this morning and was expected to consider other key legislation before sunrise.

After lengthy negotiations over the weekend, lawmakers reached deals on several measures, including the spending cuts - worth $41.6 billion over five years - and defense spending that included a provision to allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Senate is expected to vote on the measures this week. The drilling provision had the potential to hold things up, as opponents in both houses - and both parties - complained about attaching it to a defense measure considered must-pass legislation.

Moving ahead with the spending cuts was a key goal of Republican leaders, under pressure from fiscal conservatives to curtail programs and the budget deficit. Some proposals were dropped, but the legislation still calls for cuts to many programs, including Medicare, Medicaid and student loan programs.

The House version of the budget measure called for about $50 billion in cuts, the Senate legislation $35 billion. The compromise splits the difference in some areas. The House called for a larger cut in Medicaid, the health care program for the poor, than the Senate; the Senate version contained bigger cuts for Medicare, which helps provide health care for older Americans. The final version pares $8.3 billion in Medicare spending and $4.8 billion from Medicaid. Student loan programs face a $12.8 billion cut.

Negotiators dropped cuts to food stamps and child support enforcement programs, which were in the House version.

"This bill is a good first step toward addressing the long-term spending challenges in the federal budget," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, said in a statement.

Democrats blasted the deal, saying the spending cuts would be dwarfed by the tax cuts sought by Republicans.

"It's a very, very mean-spirited piece of legislation," said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

The $453 billion defense spending measure includes $50 billion for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Negotiators attached $29 billion for relief to those affected by Hurricane Katrina, and $3.8 billion for avian flu vaccine and other measures to prepare for a possible flu pandemic.

A 1 percent cut in all discretionary funding, except for the Veterans Affairs Department, is included in the measure, and would save about $8 billion.

The most controversial item is the drilling provision, a flash point in Congress in recent years. The Senate agreed this year to allow drilling in the Alaska wildlife refuge, but Republican moderates in the House removed that provision last month from the initial budget-cut package.

Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican, insisted that petroleum exploration in the wildlife refuge be included in one of the final measures. To help gain support for the provision, 80 percent of the revenue from the Alaskan refuge would go to Gulf Coast states hit hard by this year's hurricanes.

But the drilling provision - a key goal of Republican leaders and President Bush - has been opposed by some in Congress, including Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a moderate Republican who represents the Eastern Shore. He said the strategy of including the language in a must-pass bill that funds the military did not come as a surprise.

"This place is filled with people who try to outmaneuver the system," he said. "You find someplace where you can hang your coat in the cloakroom, and these guys found it."

Gilchrest said he planned to cast a procedural vote last night to block consideration of the measure, but he said he wasn't sure what he would do if forced to vote on the overall legislation that contains the drilling provision. He said that because many Democrats were expected to support the defense measure, his "no" vote would be unlikely to change the outcome.

"I'll cross that bridge when I come to it," he said.

gwyneth.shaw@baltsun.com

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