House rejects cuts to education, health care programs
Moderate Republicans joined with Democrats in opposing the cuts.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Republicans suffered a startling setback in the House on Thursday, losing a vote on cutting spending for education and health care programs. A broader budget-cutting blueprint targeting the poor, college students and farmers also was in danger.
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. In both cases, GOP moderates balked.
The 224-209 vote against a $602 billion spending bill for health, education and labor programs disrupted plans by the Republican leaders to finish work on 11 spending bills that would pay for government operations and freeze many agency budgets through next September.
Democrats were unanimous in opposing that one-year appropriations bill. "It betrays our nation's values and its future," said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "It is neither compassionate, conservative nor wise."
A companion deficit-reduction bill that would slice $50 billion from the deficit through the end of the decade, also faces unanimous opposition from Democrats, as well as from many moderate Republicans who are unhappy with cuts to Medicaid, food stamps and college loan subsidies.
It would cut from so-called mandatory programs whose budgets increase automatically every year. The proposed savings are modest considering the $14 trillion the government is set to spend during the five-year period.
Republicans say the measure is a first step to restoring fiscal discipline by curbing rapidly growing benefit programs whose budgets spiral upward each year unless reined in by Congress.
"What we want to have is a good first step in reforming out-of-control entitlement spending," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas.
GOP leaders sent the House into recess after the embarrassing defeat of the spending bill. The 22 GOP defections on that vote cast doubt on whether House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., would bring the broader deficit-reduction bill to the floor later in the day.
"There's a message in this," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said of the House vote, "and that's that the people of America are only going to accept so many cuts in health care, in Medicaid, in Medicare, in transportation and other vital areas."
Earlier Thursday, House GOP leaders eased their planned five-year cuts to health and nutrition programs for the poor, trying to win votes from reluctant moderates for the contentious deficit-reduction bill.
That measure would cut the deficit through a combination of new revenues from auctioning television airwaves to wireless companies and myriad cuts to entitlement programs like Medicaid.
The latest concession to moderates involved leaving co-payments for the poorest Medicaid beneficiaries at $3 instead of raising them to $5 and dropping a provision that would have denied free school lunches to about 40,000 children whose parents would lose their food stamps. A provision denying Medicaid nursing home benefits to people with home equity of $500,000 was modified by raising the cap to $750,000.
Those changes came on top of concessions made last week. Then, GOP leaders dropped plans to open an Alaskan wildlife refuge to oil drilling and to allow states to lift a moratorium on oil drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
Despite the changes, the core of the five year, $50 billion deficit-reduction bill remains intact. The most recent changes only chipped away at more than $800 million in cuts realized through cutting 300,000 working families from the food stamp program.
On Medicaid, the bill would generate almost $12 billion in savings through new cost-sharing burdens on beneficiaries and by letting states scale back coverage. It also would tighten rules designed to limit the ability of elderly people to shed assets to qualify for nursing home care, lower pharmacy profit margins and encourage pharmacies to issue generic drugs.
Democrats are united in opposition to the measure, objecting to both cuts in programs for the poor and the fact that the deficit-reduction bill would actually increase the deficit when combined with a tax cut bill slated for a vote today.
"Only in Washington would you have a deficit reduction project that increases the deficit," said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D.
That bill has also run into fierce resistance from moderate Republicans. And more conservative lawmakers such as Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., and Tim Johnson, R-Ill., are unhappy with a provision to increase interest rates and fees paid by student and parent borrowers to help save $14.3 billion from student loans.
The deficit-reduction bill is the first effort in eight years to take on the automatic growth of mandatory programs like Medicaid, which make up about 55 percent of the budget. By comparison, the annual appropriations bills fund about one-third of the budget.
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