By Lawrence M. O'Rourke
March 15, 2005
The first vote - a test of the GOP control of the budget - was on an amendment by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., to increase spending on education by $4.7 billion and to boost tax collections by $9.5 billion by scrubbing some proposed tax cuts urged by President Bush.
The Bingaman amendment was rejected 49-44. All 49 votes against the amendment were cast by Republicans, while three Republican, 40 Democrats and one independent voted for it.
In winning their critical test vote, Republican leaders also worked to put down a small GOP rebellion against the president's request to scale back U.S. government spending on Medicaid, the state-run health program for the poor.
A few Republican senators, mostly from the Northeast, said they were thinking about joining Democrats in blocking approval of a budget because it would restrict health care for the poor.
The budget is a blueprint for spending in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. It does not have the force of law nor require the president's signature, but it serves to force congressional committees to work within the sums allocated by the budget when they put forth spending bills.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said spending cuts in education, health care and other social services are needed to fulfill the president's plan to cut the federal budget deficit in half - to about $200 billion - in five years.
Frist said that even with the cuts, the federal government is likely to spend $7.7 trillion over the next five years. Democrats contended that the total is likely to be higher as Bush adds spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and additional costs of homeland security.
Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the Budget Committee chairman, said the country couldn't afford to repeat last year's record $412 billion budget deficit. The Congressional Budget Office projects a deficit this year of $427 billion.
"If you wish to restore the value of the dollar, we need to pass a budget that has fiscal restraint in it," Gregg said. "We can't afford to have the dollar weaken too much."
Democrats countered that Republicans were supporting the cuts in education, health care and other domestic social programs to pay for the tax cuts pushed by Bush in 2001 and 2003, and to continue several of those cuts beyond their scheduled expiration at the end of the decade.
"This budget just lets the good times roll, more tax cuts, more spending even though we can't pay our bills now," said Rep. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee.
Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., said the debates this week in the Senate and House over the budgets will be the most important matters taken up this year by Congress because they affect every area of U.S. life and government.
His comment reflected a growing belief on Capitol Hill that the president's proposal to allow voluntary private retirement savings accounts carved out of Social Security taxes may be shelved by GOP leaders until at least next year.