By MICAHEL DOYLE
November 21, 2005
On Capitol Hill, this is huge. The budget bill has tormented Republican leaders for weeks, as they have struggled to pass the measure that finally squeaked by on the narrowest possible 217-215 margin. The work isn't finished, though. When Congress returns from Thanksgiving break in December, the House and Senate will have to reconcile their very different bills.
There's lots to digest in the bill that's accompanied by a 1,440-page report. There are also more questions than answers.
Q: What is this thing?
A: Get ready for an ugly but useful word. It's called a budget "reconciliation" bill. It reconciles tax and spending provisions with an overall budget goal.
It's a powerful tool. Congressional rules prohibit senators from filibustering it, which means it only needs 51 senators instead of 60 senators to pass it. That means lawmakers try to use the reconciliation bill as a vehicle for otherwise tough sells.
Republican leaders also characterize the bill as the "Deficit Reduction Act," but that's not very accurate. The budget savings are really offsetting the multibillion-dollar cost of cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina. The budget savings will also be more than offset by an accompanying tax cut package, currently pegged at upward of $70 billion.
Q: Why do they have to pass it?
A: Actually, they don't.
There are some bills Congress must pass to keep the government running. These are the annual appropriations bills.
The budget reconciliation bill is different. It is strictly optional, and there are many years - last year, for instance - when Congress has not even bothered. This year, driven in part by conservatives restless over record federal deficits, Republicans are showing more momentum to finish the effort.
Q: This bill is mostly about budget cuts. Will they hurt?
A: Some could. Federal subsidies for student loans and assistance for foster care would be reduced, while a certain kind of cotton subsidy deemed illegal under international trade rules would be eliminated. Money would be raised by selling off some federal lands and auctioning off the analog television spectrum.
Supporters softened resistance by adding back some funds for legal immigrants receiving food stamps, and Republican supporters note that the overall cuts amount to one-half of 1 percent of federal spending over the next five years.
Q: What's the beef now between the House and Senate?
A: Plenty. Start with the money differences. Stir in whether to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Savor with long-running resentments and rivalries.
For instance, the only way House GOP leaders could lure enough moderate Republican votes was to drop a provision authorizing drilling in 2,000 acres of the Arctic refuge. This would potentially yield 10 billion barrels of oil, coming from a sliver of the otherwise-protected 19.6 million acre Arctic refuge.
Conservatives say this Arctic drilling is precisely what they will insist upon in a final bill.
House and Senate negotiators will also fight over the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The House bill splits off California and Hawaii from seven other Western states to create a new, separate circuit to hear appeals from federal trial courts. This provision faces intense opposition and is likely to be dropped from a final package.
"A split of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the largest circuit in the nation, on a budget bill is a huge mistake," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said.
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