- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The House yesterday passed a $142.5 billion measure to fund health, labor and education programs, as Congress prepared to finish work for the year that includes negotiating budget bills that would reduce entitlement spending and extend expiring tax cuts.

The health, labor and education bill squeaked through the House by a vote of 215-213, almost a month after facing defeat. To assure passage, leaders made changes that included increased funds for rural health programs.

Meanwhile, acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, said he would like to see the spending-reduction and tax-cut budget bills completed this week.

The biggest sticking point with the spending cuts is whether the final bill will include a Senate provision allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska.

Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, insists on keeping the ANWR provision, but several of the more liberal House Republicans have pledged to vote against the final bill if it includes the provision.

Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican and chairman of the conservative House Republican Study Committee, said most RSC members want a vote on the bill before Christmas, regardless of ANWR’s inclusion and support.

“We simply cannot allow a few senators or a few members of the House to derail the first effort to restore fiscal discipline since 1997,” Mr. Pence said.

Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican, said some conservatives want a House vote only if the bill can pass.

As a potential compromise, Mr. Stevens said, he would agree to attach ANWR to the annual defense spending bill but pledged to vote against the final package on spending cuts if ANWR is omitted without finding its way onto another vehicle.

“I don’t see how they can do it,” Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, New York Republican, said of the ANWR impasse. Mr. Boehlert is among the more liberal House Republicans opposing ANWR and said his group has concerns beyond ANWR.

The House-passed bill would trim about $50 billion from entitlement programs, while the Senate-passed bill would trim about $35 billion. The two chambers tentatively have aimed for a $45 billion compromise.

Several religious leaders and protesters, led by Jim Wallis, founder of the progressive evangelical Sojourners, were arrested yesterday after blocking a House building. The protesters say the budget cuts take money from the poor to finance tax cuts for the rich.

Both chambers also have passed bills to extend several tax cuts, but chances of approving a final version this year appear to be dwindling.

The biggest difference is that the House bill would extend a lower tax rate for capital gains and dividends income, while the Senate bill would prevent millions of middle-class Americans from having to pay the alternative minimum tax.

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