- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

The Senate yesterday approved raising the number of legal immigrants by hundreds of thousands per year and gave final approval to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as part of a broad deficit-cutting budget bill.

The budget, which includes spending cuts of about $35 billion over five years, passed 52-47, with two Democrats joining 50 Republicans in support and 41 Democrats, five Republicans and one independent opposed.

“This shows that we are serious about fiscal discipline,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said.

But most Democrats opposed the reduced spending for Medicaid and Medicare included in the bill.

“I urge my colleagues to defeat this budget piece by piece,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said moments before the voting began. “It’s based on the wrong values, and it reflects the wrong priorities. I would hope together we can do better.”

The bill now must be squared with the version the full House will consider next week.

The House budget includes ANWR drilling, but the chamber’s Republicans say they are unsure they can pass the bill with that provision in it. The House bill does not have the immigration increases, and several conservatives have said they will block any such efforts.

In order to meet its deficit-reduction target, the Senate Judiciary Committee called for adding 90,000 new employment-based green cards per year and for raising the fee by $500, which would net the government $251 million. The committee also increased the cap on temporary H-1B workers by 30,000, and also raised that fee, earning another $75 million.

The bill also removes family members from the cap on employment-based immigration visas, which could increase legal immigration by another 240,000 people a year, critics said. That brings the total increase in immigration to about 330,000 a year, or a nearly 33 percent increase.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, tried to strip the visa increases from the bill, but failed on an 85-14 vote. Just 10 Democrats, three Republicans and one independent voted for the amendment.

Meanwhile, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee included drilling for oil in the ANWR as part of its revenue-raising measures. That survived a challenge, 51-48.

President Bush has issued a veto threat over some of the Medicare savings included in the bill. Asked about that at a press conference after the final vote, Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican and Senate Budget Committee chairman, called the threat “absurd” before quickly adding, “I have to go catch a plane.”

Fiscal conservatives were defeated soundly by Republicans and Democrats on attempts to deepen the spending cuts.

Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, proposed requiring any future discretionary spending increases over the fiscal 2006 level to require a two-thirds vote in the Senate. Only defense and trust-fund spending would be exempt.

“Permanently is a long time,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, who led the opposition.

But Mr. Inhofe said that was the point.

“If you’re really serious about doing something about these deficits, this is your chance to do it,” he said, reminding Republicans that the taxpayer groups would be watching the vote.

It lost a 67-32 vote, with all 32 yes votes coming from Republicans.

And Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, also decided not to fight to cut $2 billion from the amount allocated to subsidize the ability of analog television owners to continue to receive a signal after the switch to digital television.

Last week, a group of fiscal conservatives said this was one of their priorities, but yesterday a spokesman for Mr. Ensign said they thought the money just would be spent elsewhere, so it wasn’t worth forcing a vote.

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