House Republican leaders passed a critical test yesterday, holding their troops together so the House could clear a bill that slows the growth of entitlement programs by $39 billion.
The belt-tightening bill, which the House sent to President Bush by a vote of 216-214 yesterday, marks the first time since 1997 that Congress has held back entitlement spending.
The vote was also a crucial win for acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, who faces two challengers today in a race to win the leadership role outright.
"Our members did their hard work again," Mr. Blunt said. "Once again, House Republicans are on record as defending budget discipline."
The House already approved the budget bill in December, 212-206, before leaving town for the holidays, but Senate Democrats managed to change a few minor portions before the Senate approved it -- forcing the measure to sit out in the public spotlight for more than a month until the House reconvened yesterday to reapprove it.
In another move yesterday to clean up business left over from the end of last session, the House extended the USA Patriot Act for five more weeks while negotiators from both parties continue working on a permanent compromise.
Yesterday's voice vote is the second time that Congress has elected to extend the law while it continues negotiations. The Senate is expected to approve the extension as early as today. Without the extension, the bill would expire tomorrow.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, expressed frustration yesterday that a group of senators had not already accepted the version of the Patriot Act that passed the House.
"These opponents in the other body have repeatedly cited their concern for civil liberties as a justification for their obstruction," he said. "Ironically, the conference report that has been blocked contains dozens of vital civil liberties protections -- many included at their request" and not included in the current law, which Congress is extending.
On the spending bill, Democrats and advocacy groups who staunchly oppose it used the monthlong interlude to pressure some of the more liberal Republicans who had supported the bill reluctantly to change their vote to no.
The groups pledged to make support for the bill an election-year issue and held more than 300 events across the country, arguing that the bill cuts Medicaid, student loans and other programs for working Americans.
In the end, 13 Republicans voted yesterday against the measure, including four who had voted "yes" in December -- Reps. Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania, Jim Ramstad of Minnesota, Rob Simmons of Connecticut and John E. Sweeney of New York.
Mr. Simmons said that many of his constituents came to his office in the past month and "sat for hours to tell me their concerns" with the bill.
"My job is to listen," he said.
Democrats held their ranks against the bill, with 200 of them, plus one independent, voting no. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, called the bill "mean-spirited" and said President Bush and Republicans "have pursued the most irresponsible fiscal policies in the history of our nation."
Still, the bill's approval was a victory for conservatives who are fighting to rein in spending and improve wasteful, outdated programs.
"This achieves savings -- not cuts," said House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, Iowa Republican. "These programs need our reform."
The bill includes some new entitlement spending, but would produce overall net savings -- including $2.7 billion from agriculture programs, $6.4 billion from Medicare, $4.8 from Medicaid and $16.1 billion from education and pension programs.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill would reduce federal entitlement spending by about $39 billion.
Democrats said the measure doesn't match Mr. Bush's State of the Union pledges to invest in education and other areas.
"That rhetoric is a far cry from the reality of the budget that the Republicans are bringing to the floor today," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
Republicans insisted that the bill is just a modest first step to reduce the massive growth of entitlement spending. Rep. Adam H. Putnam, Florida Republican, called it "a step towards smarter, more competent government."