- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Senate yesterday approved $39.7 billion in budget cuts after Vice President Dick Cheney broke a 50-50 tie, but Republicans lost their bid to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which leaders had added to the defense spending bill.

In a flurry of activity last night, the Senate completed its business for the year, approving 93-0 the $453.5 billion annual defense-spending bill, after stripping out the contentious ANWR drilling proposal.

A resolution dropping the provision, which Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, had fought vehemently to include, was approved, 48-45. The House must clear the change before sending the defense-spending bill to President Bush.

The Senate also approved by voice vote a final Defense Department reauthorization bill and a $142.5 billion annual spending bill that funds education, labor and health programs. The senators also passed a six-month extension for key parts of the USA Patriot Act, giving time for civil liberties concerns to be addressed.

“We can stand before you really in a celebratory mood,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, after the various bills were approved. “We are governing with meaningful solutions.”

On Monday, the House had approved the final defense-spending bill with ANWR included and Mr. Stevens was furious that it was ultimately dropped.

“This was wrong,” the Alaskan thundered, vowing to think of a way to bring it back next year and emotionally scolding fellow senators who attacked him for attaching the provision. “This has been the saddest day of my life.

Democrats had staunchly objected to inserting the drilling provision, because it violated a rule prohibiting negotiators from inserting into a final bill any provision that hadn’t been included in either chamber’s original bill.

Mr. Stevens angrily pointed out that other areas of the bill are add-ons as well. Besides funding the troops, the bill also has $29 billion in spending for hurricane victims and $3.8 billion to combat avian flu. The bill also includes a 1 percent across-the-board cut for all discretionary programs other than veterans services.

He noted that his proposal would have dedicated some future ANWR revenue to long-term hurricane recovery and a low-income heating program.

Democrats were pleased with the outcome of both ANWR and the Patriot Act fights.

“We stood together at critical moments,” said Minority Whip Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat.

The budget-savings measure, part of Republicans’ effort to rein in spending, marks the first time since 1997 that Congress has sought to restrain the growth of entitlement programs.

“The Senate vote to reduce entitlement spending is a victory for taxpayers, fiscal restraint and responsible budgeting — and it will help keep us on track to cut the deficit in half by 2009,” President Bush said after the bill was approved.

The vote was nearly party line, with all Democrats voting against the bill, and all but five Republicans supporting it. The Republicans who voted “no” were Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, and Gordon H. Smith of Oregon.

But Mr. Bush probably won’t see the bill on his desk until next year, after Senate Democrats succeeded yesterday in a procedural move that sends the bill back to the House for reapproval.

Democrats struck some minor sections of the bill — including provisions that protect hospitals from being sued if they turn away people who can’t pay — resulting in legislation that is different from the House-passed bill. The House reconvenes in an informal session today, meaning only a few members will be present and any action will have to be by unanimous consent.

House Democrats, who say the bill cuts programs for the poor, have vowed that they’ll demand a roll-call vote, and a House Republican leadership aide said chances are “slim to none” that the leaders will call all the chamber’s members back to town during the Christmas break.

“Democrats believe this Republican bill has the wrong priorities. That is why we will request a recorded vote,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

Among other things, the budget-trimming bill reduces Medicaid spending by a net of $4.8 billion over five years, mainly through a series of reforms. Medicare would receive $7.3 billion to ensure that its doctors don’t see a cut in their payments, but it would also see reforms to its hospital program and medical equipment purchases, for a net reduction of $6.4 billion. The bill also collects $16.3 billion from education and pension programs.

“This budget is an attack on the middle class and those in greatest need,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.

Mr. Frist said the bill doesn’t cut programs, it simply slows their growth and criticized “the entitlement spending path we are on” as “simply unsustainable.”

Mr. Stevens’ drilling provision had been holding up the budget-savings bill, so the Alaskan and Republican leaders moved it onto the popular $453.5 billion defense-spending bill. Enraged Senate Democrats blocked the bill as a result.

A Republican motion to override the Democrats and pass the defense bill couldn’t muster the 60 votes needed, falling four votes short at 56-44, with three Republicans voting with Democrats and one independent against it and four Democrats supporting it.

One of the three Republicans voting against the party line was Mr. Frist, who did so to maintain the right to continue moving the defense bill through the Senate.

Democrats praised the drilling defeat, with Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, calling the vote “a victory for common sense and for really what was right.”

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