Shy Votes, GOP Puts Off Budget
In an embarrassing setback for President Bush and the Republican Party, House GOP leaders on Thursday abruptly postponed a vote on a major spending-cut bill after failing to round up enough support to pass the measure.
The leaders remained a few votes short even after days of arm-twisting and making a major concession to wary Republican moderates -- stripping from the bill a controversial provision that would have authorized drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
House leaders expressed confidence they would have the votes next week to pass the bill, which calls for $50 billion in spending cuts. They have portrayed the measure as part of a new, more determined effort by the White House and the GOP-controlled Congress to reduce the federal budget deficit. The red ink for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 totaled $319 billion.
But the failure to bring the bill to a vote Thursday as promised was an unmistakable sign of how much the once-lock step Republican team is losing its discipline. With the president’s job approval ratings sagging and the party under an ethics cloud on several fronts, many House Republicans increasingly are looking to their own political interests as the 2006 midterm elections approach.
“Everybody is concerned about reelection,” said Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.). “Whether they say it or not, it’s there.”
The spending-cut bill is proving especially difficult to pass 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 [to pass the bill Thursday],” said Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), chairwoman of the House Republican Caucus. But she added, “That doesn’t mean we’re abandoning our efforts.”
Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said that despite the postponement, “winning the vote next week will be a great victory.” But it remained unclear how the GOP leaders would alter the bill -- or what sweeteners they might offer -- to secure its passage.
Provisions in the bill would slow the growth in spending for several popular domestic programs, including Medicaid, food stamps, student loans and farm subsidies.
Conservatives want a show of fiscal restraint to appease complaints that the party has allowed spending to grow out of control. But curbing popular social programs poses political risks for the party’s most vulnerable members -- moderates who represent districts with large numbers of Democrats.
Dropping the Alaska drilling provision won over some moderates. But it alienated some House Republicans who view that proposal as an essential element of a revised energy policy.
About 30 pro-drilling Republicans met privately Thursday, the day after the energy provision was dropped. They were “outraged that every single Democrat in the House and a handful of northeastern, liberal Republicans would block new America energy supplies from coming on line,” said Brian Kennedy, spokesman for Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), chairman of the House Resources Committee.
The pro-drilling Republicans planned to seek a commitment from their leadership that Arctic drilling would be in a final budget-cutting bill worked out by House-Senate negotiators, Kennedy said.
Republicans, who have 231 members in the 435-seat House, needed most of their rank-and-file to support the budget bill because no Democrats were expected to support the measure.
Democratic leaders oppose the cuts proposed for many of the domestic programs, and have assailed GOP plans to follow the deficit-reduction bill with a measure that would cut taxes.
“We made the issues in that budget too hot for the Republicans to handle,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).
The inability of House Republican leaders to reconcile the GOP factions behind the bill also showed how much the hierarchy has been thrown off balance by the criminal indictment that forced Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to step down as majority leader.
Nonetheless, DeLay has played a role in the efforts to pass the bill. But the vote on spending cuts has been seen as a major test of the clout of his successor, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who may hold the post temporarily or become a leading contender for the job if DeLay is not cleared of allegedly violating campaign finance laws in Texas.
House Republicans are not the only ones bucking their leadership and the White House. Earlier this week, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Finance Committee, said Bush’s effort to revamp Social Security was probably dead until 2009 -- after he leaves the White House.
On Thursday, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), played a major role in stalling the finance panel’s consideration of another White House priority -- a bill to make permanent the tax cuts enacted during Bush’s first term.
All year, the battle over the federal budget has been an important part of the debate among Republicans about the direction of the party.
Conservatives have been clamoring for a return to the party’s traditional commitment to smaller government. Their fury boiled over when, following Hurricane Katrina, the administration proposed multibillion-dollar bills in federal aid for the battered Gulf Coast.
The Republican Study Committee, comprised of the House’s most conservative GOP members, infuriated their leaders by staging a news conference calling on Congress to offset the Katrina cleanup costs with politically painful spending cuts in domestic programs.
The political pressure on moderates to resist such cuts has been intensified by a grass-roots campaign by liberal activists, who have been peppering them with phone calls, e-mails and protests in their home districts. Moderates targeted included those facing some of the most competitive reelection contests in 2006, such as Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.).
Simmons said in a statement Thursday that although the budget-cutting measure no longer included Arctic drilling, he remained opposed to “changes the bill would make to food stamps, Medicaid, student loan programs and payments to help states enforce child support agreements.”
Many moderates were particularly troubled by the plan to follow the spending-cut bill with a tax-cut measure.
“That juxtaposition is a problem,”’ said Castle. “When you come from a district where registration is less Republican and the Democratic presidential candidate won ... that is a political issue.”