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Budget issues, headlined by Arctic Refuge drilling
By Richard Mauer
Anchorage Daily News


April 03, 2005

Washington - Opening the Arctic refuge to oil drilling was at the forefront of the Senate budget debate last month, but now it has been overshadowed by even more controversial items in the budget as Congress attempts to reconcile two very divergent spending plans in the weeks ahead.

Not only did the Senate version of the budget open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, it also rescinded $14 billion in Medicaid cuts sought by President Bush and further deepened the deficit by approving new tax cuts without matching spending cuts. None of those items was in the House version of the budget, and some of the House's deficit hawks have been loudly critical of the Senate action.

If the House and Senate are unable to resolve their considerable differences, the budget could go down in flames, as it has in two of the last three years.

"It's not a slam dunk that a budget resolution will be passed," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan organization founded by Democrats and Republicans that advocate balanced budgets. "The Medicaid issue is probably the biggest stumbling block in getting the budget resolution passed. It's not that much money, but the Senate and the House are pretty far apart on that. The other potential one is the size of the tax cut."

The government can function without a budget, since Congress can ensure ongoing operations through appropriation bills. But failing to pass a budget would be a huge embarrassment to the Republican leadership, since Republicans control Congress and the White House, and failing to enact a spending plan would make it more difficult to tame the huge national deficits.

The effort to bring the two chambers together on a single budget resolution begins this week, when Congress returns from its two-week Easter break and its leadership is expected to appoint a budget conference committee. The budget law requires that a completed resolution pass both houses by April 15, but there are no penalties for failing, and few believe Congress would meet that deadline under even the most favorable circumstances.

Both the Senate and House passed their respective budget resolutions March 17, the Senate 51-49, the House 218-214. In both cases, Democrats were united in their opposition, while a few Republicans crossed over _ four in the Senate, a dozen in the House.

The Republican leadership in the Senate, bolstered by gains in the November election, succeeded in attaching an open-ANWR provision in the budget under the theory _ far from universally accepted _ that the federal treasury would receive $2.5 billion from oil companies to lease the lands. Budget bills, unlike regular legislation, are not subject to a filibuster, and Senate leaders still don't have the 60 votes they would need to cut off debate on an energy bill that would tap the refuge for oil.

In the increasingly chaotic lead-up to passage of the Senate budget bill the Senate voted 51-49 in favor of refuge drilling. The vote came March 16 on an amendment by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., to strip the refuge from the budget. Seven Republicans sided with Cantwell and three Democrats opposed her.

But even bigger news the next day was the $14 billion Medicaid restoration, sponsored by Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., who is also a refuge-drilling opponent. Six other Republicans joined all the Democrats and the Senate's one independent in approving the measure, 52-48. With stronger majorities, the Senate also restored $2 billion in cuts to the popular community development block grant program for urban areas and nearly $1 billion for fire and police grants and border security agents. And after Senate budget leaders originally reduced Bush's tax cuts from $100 billion to about $70 billion in an effort to cut the deficit, the Senate turned around and added new cuts, bringing the total to about $134 billion.

The House budget more closely adhered to the White House proposal, and House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, said it will be tough trying to reconcile the two versions.

The House budget had no refuge provision. A group of moderate House Republicans led by Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., has urged Nussle to keep it that way.

Another Connecticut representative, Democrat Rosa DeLauro, agreed. "The fact that the Republican leadership did not include an ANWR provision in the House budget proves that drilling is still a highly contentious issue," she said in a prepared statement Thursday. "This battle is far from over, which is why the conferees should respect the House's position and keep this provision out of the final budget resolution."

But even opponents of drilling believe the House would easily pass a budget resolution that would open the refuge, assuming other issues don't get in the way.

Meanwhile, the House Resources Committee plans to move ahead with the markup of a separate energy bill this week that will include refuge drilling, said spokesman Brian Kennedy.

"This committee and the House have never had a problem passing ANWR before," Kennedy said. "ANWR can follow two tracks over here."

Even if the budget resolution clears through conference with the refuge provision intact and is approved by both chambers, the fight is far from over. Under the complex budget process, the resolution directs House and Senate committees to write legislation to enable the items in the budget. In the case of the refuge, that would be the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the House Resources Committee. The committees will have until June to return legislation, which would then be combined in a reconciliation package that must be approved again by both chambers and signed by the president.

Environmental organizations plan to keep up their pressure on senators they believe might waiver during the months ahead.

"The public is pretty outraged that Congress would have the audacity to ignore their will and have that vote," said Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League in Washington, D.C. "There are letters to the editor everywhere, and people are very energized everywhere."


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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