- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2003

House Republican leaders were twisting arms late into last night to pass a budget that includes President Bush's 10-year, $725 billion economic-growth package.

Liberal House Republicans this week forced a concession from Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, Iowa Republican, who softened his plan to reduce the growth of Medicare spending.

Critics from both parties had accused the Budget Committee of forcing more than $300 billion in Medicare savings over the next 10 years.

Mr. Nussle agreed Wednesday night to take mandatory Medicare spending off his cut list, and restored $844 million in veterans benefits.

Those concessions were still not enough to guarantee passage of the committee's version of the budget scheduled for a vote late last night but House leaders were meeting with wavering legislators individually yesterday to secure their votes.

In floor action last night, a core group of Republicans, joined by a shifting coalition of other Republicans and Democrats, fended off several alternative budgets: a proposal from the conservative House Democratic "Blue Dogs" failed 174-254, a proposal from the conservative Republican Study Committee failed 80-342, and an alternative proposed by the Congressional Black Caucus and the Progressive Caucus failed 85-340.

Mr. Nussle said his budget would help the economy grow and reduce nondefense spending across the board by 1 percent.

"Out of the billions of dollars we spend around here, do you think we can find a penny on the dollar?" Mr. Nussle asked. "What we say in this budget is for every federal department to find it."

Meanwhile, the Senate continued to debate its version of the federal budget. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said he'd like to see a final vote today, but will convene a Saturday session to get it done this week, if necessary.

Republican leaders in the Senate also were wrangling to get the more liberal members of their party to support a version of the budget with Mr. Bush's $725 billion growth package. Making that job more difficult is a compromise proposal put forth by centrist Democrats for a $350 billion growth plan.

Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, said "nearly all" Democrats have lined up behind the compromise, but it appears to be two or three votes short of passage.

"It's real close," Mr. Baucus said.

Sen. Zell Miller, Georgia Democrat, already has pledged support for the full $725 billion package, and a few Democrats are still insisting on no tax cut at all.

But if the centrist Democratic plan can achieve unified party support, it would have a good chance of passing because a handful of Republicans Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, and Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island have been pushing for the smaller tax cut.

That would be a significant political defeat for the Senate Republican leadership, which has been pushing for the president's plan for months.

Complicating matters, three senators Mr. Chafee, and Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Thomas R. Carper of Delaware plan to offer an amendment that largely replicates the budget plan of the so-called "Blue Dog" Democrats in the House.

The Senate version of the conservative "Blue Dog" plan would defer some of the income-tax cuts the president wants until the cost of the war in Iraq is known and the budget is balanced. Even the most optimistic budget projections put that date as almost 10 years away.

Mr. Baucus said the $350 billion compromise tax plan might be offered tomorrow, but only if he feels the votes are there to pass it. Mr. Chafee said he is holding off committing to any plan until he knows which one will pass.

That will take some close monitoring on the senator's part.

Several of those who prefer the $350 billion plan have indicated they would vote for the larger growth package if it fails. Mr. Chafee said he'll only vote for the $350 billion plan if it's needed for passage, keeping the bigger package from winning the day.

"It's defense," Mr. Chafee said. "If they need my vote to stop that, I'll be there."

That said, Mr. Chafee predicted the $725 billion tax plan will have just enough votes to squeak through in the end.

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