By Lawrence M. O'Rourke
March 19, 2005
Before starting their recess, Senate and House Republicans, over Democratic opposition, approved separate - but dissimilar - tax and spending blueprints despite an all-out effort by the White House and party leaders to agree on a common approach.
The Republican leadership's aim was to present to voters a strict budget with spending cuts as a strong sign of their determination to stem the flow of budget red ink.
While congressional Republicans failed to reach the goals set by their leaders and backed by Bush, the White House brushed off the situation Friday as merely a step in the legislative process.
"Congress is still working on an agreement for a budget framework," White House spokesman Scott McClellan declared aboard Air Force One during a flight taking the president to a Social Security rally in Florida and a holiday visit to his Texas ranch.
"There's still a legislative process to go," McClellan said.
But New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, offered a blunter assessment of what turned out to be a difficult week on Capitol Hill for the majority party.
"This is the middle of the process and I hope it will improve," Gregg said, hours after the Senate had removed from its budget a $14 billion, five-year cut in Medicaid spending that House Republicans and President Bush had fought to include in the fiscal package that goes into effect on Oct. 1.
The Senate action, taken Thursday night, means that Medicaid spending will continue at levels previously anticipated. Across the Capitol, House Republicans pushed through a $20 billion cut in projected Medicaid spending.
The next step is for Republican leaders in the two chambers to try to work out a single federal budget blueprint that in a few weeks can gain approval in both chambers.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said that would be a primary goal when Congress returns to Washington in two weeks.
But achieving a single blueprint might require more arm-twisting than Bush and GOP leader can manage.
One option would be for conservative House Republicans to back down from the president's insistence on Medicaid cuts.
Another option would be to convince moderate Republican senators to reverse position and accept the Medicaid cuts after making a strong argument this week that they were a bad idea.
Either option would be a tough sell for the president and GOP congressional leaders, said Robert Bixby, executive director of the independent Concord Coalition.
The proposed slash in Medicaid is a major stumbling block in the path of any budget deal this year, Bixby said, suggesting that Republicans face the awkward possibility they might be shown as unable to unify their larger majorities on Capitol Hill to secure a spending and tax plan for the U.S. government.
Congress has gone without a budget for two of the last three years, but that's before Bush and Republican leaders had the Senate and House majorities they now hold.
The lack of a single plan has the potential for throwing the process of spending money on government programs and cutting federal taxes into turmoil. Without a budget there are no guidelines for how much can be spent and how big the deficit can be.
The lack of a budget in a sense enhances the role of congressional appropriators, few of whom welcome cuts in their particular budgets.
Republican leaders insisted before the session began in January that this would be the year when they had a tough federal budget that would show their seriousness at cutting deficits.
Now it looks more and more doubtful that such a budget can be enacted, said John Irons, budget analyst for the independent Center for American Progress, a think tank that often advocates centrist positions.
The somewhat embarrassing situation for Republicans came after Bush and party leaders were unsuccessful in trying to dissuade a handful of GOP senators from breaking ranks and joining the entire Democratic bloc in the Senate in the key vote on the budget.
With Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., taking the lead, the rebellious GOP senators joined Democrats in voting 52-48 in favor of higher funding for Medicaid as part of a $2.6 trillion budget.
By the vote, the unusual coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans put back into the spending plan the $14 billion allocation to provide health care for the poor that Bush wanted to cut as a symbol of his determination to tackle a politically sensitive entitlement program as a first step toward cutting the federal budget deficit in half - to about $200 billion - in five years.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., appealed to the dissident Republicans to accept the Medicaid cut rather than hand the president a setback and give Democrats not only their first small legislative win of the year, but also the opportunity to depict themselves as the champions of the poor.
The GOP-led Senate further complicated the budget process by voting to approve a $134 tax-cut package, $34 billion more than Bush requested and $64 billion more than Senate Republican leaders proposed.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who opposed the larger tax cut, was critical of his fellow senators. "We didn't know what we were doing," he said.