- The Washington Times - Friday, February 10, 2006

CAMBRIDGE, Md. — The budget cut bill President Bush signed on Wednesday did not pass both the House and Senate in identical form, and House Democrats now say that means it is not legitimately a law.

Because of a clerical error, the version the House voted on had a different reimbursement time period in one section than the time period in the version that passed the Senate.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, called the law into question and sent a letter to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, demanding a new vote on the bill.

“I don’t yet know exactly what happened and who is at fault, but it is clear that the legislation signed by the president on Wednesday is not what actually passed the House of Representatives on February 1,” Mr. Rangel wrote in his letter.

The bill was the $39 billion budget reductions measure that Republican leaders have touted as a start toward fiscal discipline, but which Democrats said damaged health care programs and student loans.

It passed the Senate 50-50 on Dec. 21, with Vice President Dick Cheney breaking the tie, and passed the House 216-214 on Feb. 1.

After the Senate voted on the bill, aides said, a Senate clerk inadvertently changed the length of time Medicare would reimburse for certain medical equipment to be rented from 13 months to 36 months.

Congressional Quarterly reported that staffers discovered the error before the House passed the bill, but did not disclose the mistake until this week.

After the House vote, a Senate clerk changed the length of time back to 13 months and sent the bill to Mr. Bush under the signatures of Mr. Hastert and Senate President Pro Tem Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, the presiding officers of each chamber. The Senate passed a resolution stating they meant to say 13 months in the bill.

Democratic senators said they would not stand in the way of the measure becoming law, Senate aides said.

However, House Democrats want to force another vote on the bill, which would be the third time in three months House Republicans will have voted to cut Medicare — even though each vote was on the same basic measure.

Liberal activists said they want the process to be as difficult as possible for Republicans.

Cara Morris Stern, spokeswoman for the Emergency Campaign for America’s Priorities, said lawyers in the group are looking at a legal challenge to the measure.

She said Republicans face a dilemma of having to vote again or “open up their actions to a very public scrutiny of a House mired in conflict and abuse of power.”

Asked about the issue before Democrats made their challenge yesterday, Mr. Hastert seemed uncertain about whether there will have to be another vote.

“They’re trying to work it out, and we’ll see what happens,” he said.

The Constitution requires in Article I that bills must pass the House and Senate, and that means “in precisely the same form,” according to several research papers done for the Congressional Research Service.

William Eskridge Jr., the John A. Garver Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale Law School, said there is no precedent in case law that governs the situation.

He said there is a good argument that the process violated constitutional mandates for how a bill becomes a law, and said judges could go either way on whether the bill was properly signed into law.

But Mr. Eskridge said judges probably would dismiss a challenge by arguing the dispute is a political question best left to the elected branches to sort out.

“Judges would differ on that if they ever got their teeth into it, but the real answer is it would not be what judges call justiciable,” he said.

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