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House focuses on budget after its spending bill fails

By Associated Press
Published November 18, 2005

WASHINGTON - After suffering a defeat on a bill to slash education and health care programs this year, Republican leaders tweaked a broader budget plan for the rest of the decade facing similar opposition from party moderates because of cuts across an array of programs for the poor, students and farmers.

GOP leaders recessed the House for five hours Thursday as they hunted for votes to salvage what President Bush made his top budget priority last February - trimming back entitlement programs like Medicaid and farm subsidies that grow automatically with inflation and population increases.

Regrouping with new concessions on food stamp cuts, Speaker Dennis Hastert ordered the House back into session shortly after 8 p.m. with the idea of getting a vote sometime after midnight on the five-year deficit-reduction plan. The outcome remained in doubt, particularly after the defeat of the one-year spending bill for the education, labor and health and human services departments.

Both bills are part of a campaign by Republican leaders to burnish their party's budget-cutting credentials as they try to reduce a deficit swelled by spending on the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina. In both cases, GOP moderates balked.

The 224-209 vote against a $602-billion spending bill for health, education and labor programs disrupted plans by the Republican leaders to finish work on 11 spending bills that would pay for government operations and freeze many agency budgets through next September.

Democrats were unanimous in opposing that one-year appropriations bill. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala, was the only Florida Republican to join them.

A companion deficit-reduction bill, which would slice $50-billion from the deficit through the end of the decade, also faces unanimous opposition from Democrats, as well as from many moderate Republicans who are unhappy with cuts to Medicaid, food stamps and college loan subsidies.

It would cut from so-called mandatory programs whose budgets increase automatically every year. The proposed savings are modest considering the $14-trillion the government is set to spend during the five-year period.

Republicans say the measure is a first step to restoring fiscal discipline by curbing rapidly growing benefit programs whose budgets spiral upward each year unless reined in by Congress.

"What we want to have is a good first step in reforming out-of-control entitlement spending," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas.

GOP leaders sent the House into recess after the embarrassing defeat of the spending bill. The 22 GOP defections on that vote cast doubt on whether Hastert, R-Ill., would bring the broader deficit-reduction bill to the floor later in the day.

Despite the changes, the core of the five year, $50-billion deficit-reduction bill remains intact. The most recent changes only chipped away at more than $800-million in cuts realized through cutting 300,000 working families from the food stamp program.

On Medicaid, the bill would generate almost $12-billion in savings through new cost-sharing burdens on beneficiaries and by letting states scale back coverage. It also would tighten rules designed to limit the ability of elderly people to shed assets to qualify for nursing home care, lower pharmacy profit margins and encourage pharmacies to issue generic drugs.

[Last modified November 18, 2005, 01:29:09]

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