- The Washington Times - Friday, November 18, 2005

The House late last night moved toward passing a Republican-backed bill to trim about $50 billion from government entitlement programs, but only after a weeks-long battle between conservative and liberal wings of the party, down-to-the-wire talks and a few false starts.

“The world is full of surprises, but I think the vote’s looking positive,” Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican and vice chairman of the House Republican conference, said last night.

“I think we’ve got it,” said a senior House Republican aide. A final vote was scheduled for early this morning.

House Republican leaders have struggled for weeks to get the votes of more liberal Republicans who objected to the bill’s reduced spending for programs such as Medicaid and Food Stamps.

They were negotiating last-minute details with some of these members last night.

The decision to push ahead with the bill came after the stunning defeat earlier in the day of an annual spending bill that funds health care, education and other social programs. That bill, which failed 224-209, was opposed by all 201 Democrats who voted, the chamber’s one independent and 22 Republicans.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, California Republican, said the $142.5 billion labor, health care and education bill, was defeated because it reduced spending and denied any special projects earmarked for individual members.

“The combination of all those things was too much for some to swallow,” Mr. Lewis said.

“This is a tremendous defeat for Republicans,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, one of several Democrats who railed against the defeated labor bill as shortchanging education, health and other programs.

Meanwhile, the spending-cuts bill is part of a push by House conservatives to pay for the costs of Hurricane Katrina and to return the party to fiscal discipline and smaller, smarter government.

“Tonight … we will begin the process of putting our fiscal house in order,” said Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the Republican Study Committee. “This is a moment of truth.”

Democrats said the bill made cruel cuts to programs for the poor and would do nothing to reduce the deficit because House Republicans plan to follow it up by passing a costly tax-cut bill.

Republican leaders could bring that bill up as soon as today.

“When these two are put together the result will be a bigger deficit,” said the House budget panel’s top Democrat, Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina, who called the spending-cut bill “a sham.”

But the real rift was between Republican factions. Party leaders made concessions to their more liberal members, who were worried about the political backlash of making the cuts.

“We should cut the pork, not the poor,” said Rep. Jim Ramstad, a Minnesota Republican who planned to vote “no.”

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican who voiced concern with the bill, was still negotiating with House leaders late last night.

He said they were giving him some last-minute assurances, including a promise that when the final bill is negotiated with the Senate, they’ll try to add more money for low-income heating programs, which already get a $1 billion boost in the bill.

The spending-cut bill is the first major test for Majority Leader Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, who took the post after Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, was indicted in September.

Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, warned that if leaders can’t twist enough arms to pass it, a shake-up may be in order. “You’ll see far more conservatives declaring their independence and aiming their cannon fire not only at Democrats, but at leadership,” he said.

“If we fail, it’s going to look bad for the new leadership team,” said Rep. Joe Pitts, Pennsylvania Republican.

Other Republicans disagreed. “I think it’s going to be laid at the feet of our conference; our conference is split on this,” said Rep. Ray LaHood, Illinois Republican.

House Republican leaders plan to bring up as soon as today a $57 billion bill to extend a list of expiring tax cuts, including a reduced rate for income from capital gains and dividends, set to end in 2008.

The tax bill is running into some Republican opposition, however, because it includes tax relief for casinos that are rebuilding in the wake of the Gulf Coast hurricanes.

“I want tax breaks, but not for the gaming industry,” Mr. Pitts said.

The Senate continued its own debate over its $60 billion tax-cut bill yesterday, turning back a series of Democratic amendments that would have raised taxes or ended some targeted tax incentives.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s amendment to restore the so-called millionaire’s tax bracket of 39.6 percent was defeated by a vote of 59-40. Another of the California Democrat’s amendments to end $2.5 billion in tax breaks for oil drilling and refining lost on a 51-48 vote.

The effort by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, to create a windfall-profits tax on oil companies for any profits on oil sold at more than $40 a barrel, failed on a 64-35 vote.

The underlying bill, which was expected to get final approval early this morning, extends some expiring tax cuts and offers $7 billion to create opportunity zones in the areas affected by the Gulf Coast hurricanes.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this story.

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