Raft of Amendments Cloud Budget Picture

Posted March 14, 2005 at 6:45pm

You may not see it on VH-1, but budget wonks appear poised for their “best week ever” as both the House and Senate throw bipartisanship to the wind and buckle down for dueling debates over a $2.6 trillion 2006 budget blueprint. [IMGCAP(1)]

It’s that time of year, when both parties lay down their markers on policy priorities by arguing over an esoteric document that simply sets broad spending goals but leaves most of the specifics to other committees.

Still, Senate Republican leaders will be trying their mightiest to keep wayward GOP centrists in line on myriad feel-good amendments offered by Democrats, while House GOP leaders continue wrangling with their conservatives

over creating more stringent budget enforcement rules.

Since House deals are usually made behind closed doors, the best political theater is likely to be in the Senate, where Republicans’ increased majority will be put to the test as leaders try to beat back a number of too-close-to-call amendments.

Take for example Sen. Gordon Smith’s (R-Ore.) proposal to restore the $15 billion the budget assumes will be cut from Medicaid. Chances are that all 44 Democrats and one Democratic-leaning independent will support the measure, and Roll Call counts at least four likely Republican votes: Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine.), Susan Collins (Maine), Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) and, of course, Smith.

Several other Republicans have groused about the plan, first floated by President Bush, to make cuts in Medicaid at a time when medical costs are ballooning and states are already trimming the rolls of the poor who qualify for government-funded medical assistance. Republicans to watch on this vote include Sens. George Voinovich (Ohio) and Norm Coleman (Minn.), to name just two.

Similarly, Democrats are expected to flock in droves to an amendment from Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) to establish pay-as-you-go, or PAYGO, rules for mandatory spending and tax cuts. It would establish a 60-vote point of order on tax cuts and spending that threaten to break budget caps. Most Republicans don’t like it, because it would hamper their ability (in the Senate at least) to pass more tax cuts this year.

But Feingold appears to have 50 votes already and is still looking for that magical 51st vote to put his amendment over the top.

If he succeeds, it will be a major blow to Republicans, primarily because the amendment’s success obliges either a Republican Senator to switch his or her vote from last year, or a rogue newcomer to boldly break ranks with his leadership.

Meanwhile, efforts to prevent drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will likely fall short, aides to both Democrats and Republicans agree.

One Senate Democratic aide estimated that opponents of drilling in ANWR have only 48 votes this year, compared to 52 on a similar vote in 2003.

Even thought at least seven Republicans are expected to join the majority of Democrats in opposing language designed to protect an ANWR measure from filibuster, Democratic losses in the 2004 election put drilling opponents four votes short.

And while it is generally politically unpalatable for Floridians to support drilling, it appears that freshman Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) is trying to figure out a way to both vote for ANWR drilling while opposing more drilling off the coast of his home state.

Spokeswoman Kerry Feehery said Martinez was hoping to come up with some legislative language to insulate Florida before the vote this week, but he may vote for the measure regardless.

While amendments on Medicaid, PAYGO and ANWR are getting the most chatter this week, there are a few dark horse proposals in the Senate to keep an eye on as well.

Among the potential bipartisan blows to the budget resolution could be a handful of amendments seeking to restore the $5.4 billion the Senate Agriculture Committee would have to cut from programs under its jurisdiction.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said he would likely vote against amendments designed to minimize the blow to agriculture programs, because he made a deal with Senate Budget Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.).

“It’s hard to say right now what I’ll vote for and what I’ll vote against,” said Chambliss. “But I’ve worked out an arrangement with Judd Gregg, and I intend to stick by what we’ve agreed to.”

Still, other red state Republicans may feel the need to vote for more agriculture funding in the budget. And because Chambliss has ruled out capping farm subsidy payments as the president suggested in his budget plan, Democrats are likely to be leery of making food stamps and nutrition programs bear the brunt of $5 billion in cuts to mandatory programs.

Additionally, Senate Democratic attempts to eliminate proposed cuts to education and to Community Development Block Grants could attract a few Republican votes. Ditto for Democratic efforts to scale back the proposed cuts to veterans’ medical care.

One key vote in this area will come on a proposal from Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) to add $4.8 billion to education funding, using money the Finance Committee would have to find by closing some existing tax loopholes, Bingaman spokeswoman Jude McCartin said.

The proposal is intended to add funding for the president’s signature education initiative, No Child Left Behind, as well as dropout prevention programs that Bingaman has sponsored in the past, said McCartin.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) will also offer an amendment to split $146 billion over 10 years between Perkins loans for higher education and deficit reduction. The proposal would be offset by eliminating two of President Bush’s tax cuts that have yet to go into effect, said Harkin spokeswoman Allison Dobson.

Meanwhile, the House Rules Committee will likely block Democrats from offering amendments to the budget that threaten to siphon off too many Republicans, but first, they’ve got to quell the conservative uprising over budget enforcement mechanisms.

The leadership and the conservative Republican Study Committee are expected to resume talks today on the RSC’s demands that the House allow points of order on bills that exceed the spending authority allowed in the budget.

GOP leaders were frustrated last week by the tactics of RSC Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) on the issue, but Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has been engaged in negotiations with the RSC in hopes of reaching an acceptable compromise.

Though any deal would not be part of the budget, it would ensure that Republican leaders could actually bring the budget to the floor. If conservative Republicans joined most House Democrats in opposing the rule for consideration of the budget, the House would most likely not be able to pass its budget this week.

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.