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House OKs budget cut bill

Republicans salvage major pillar of their agenda despite party divisions

WASHINGTON — House Republicans sweated out a victory on a major budget cut bill in the wee hours today, salvaging a major pillar of their agenda despite divisions within the party and nervousness among moderates that the vote could cost them in next year's elections.

The bill, passed 217-215 after a 25-minute-long roll call, makes modest but politically painful cuts across an array of programs for the poor, students and farmers.

The victory on the deficit-control bill came hours after an embarrassing and rare defeat on a $602 billion spending bill for education, health care and job training programs this year. The earlier 224-209 vote halted what had been a steady drive to complete annual appropriations bills freezing many agency budgets.

The broader budget bill would slice almost $50 billion from the deficit by the end of the decade by curbing rapidly growing benefit programs such as Medicaid, food stamps and student loan subsidies. Republicans said reining in such programs whose costs spiral upward each year automatically is the first step to restoring fiscal discipline.

"This unchecked spending is growing faster than our economy, faster than inflation, and far beyond our means to sustain it," said Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa.

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.

The budget plan squeaked through after an all-day search by Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., to round up votes from reluctant moderates and other lawmakers uneasy with the bill.

House leaders now face arduous talks with the Senate, which passed a much more modest plan earlier this month. Negotiators face difficult negotiations over Arctic drilling, Medicaid and student loans, among other issues

To win House approval, Hastert ordered modest concessions on plans to limit eligibility for food stamps and require the poorest Medicaid patients to pay more for their care. He ordered killed a provision to deny free school lunches to about 40,000 children whose parents would lose their food stamps.

Those changes and other promises won the votes of lawmakers who had earlier registered opposition to the bill, including James Walsh, R-N.Y., Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., and Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y.

The biggest concession came Thursday evening when Walsh won language permitting food stamp recipients making the transition to work to continue to be able to receive non-cash benefits for child care, transportation and housing without losing their nutrition benefits.

An earlier 224-209 vote against a $602 billion spending bill for health, education and labor programs disrupted plans by the Republican leaders to complete work on freezing many agency budgets through next September.