- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 29, 2006

House Republicans return to town this week fighting Democrats to approve a budget bill that trims about $40 billion from entitlement programs.

The House approved the budget measure 212-206 before leaving town last month, but Senate Democrats subsequently changed a few minor parts before the Senate approved it, so final passage has been delayed until House members return this week.

Also high on the agenda for both chambers is extending the USA Patriot Act, which expires Friday. Late last year, Congress only managed to extend it through early February, and a House Republican leadership aide said the House will likely move a bill this week that would extend it again — this time through March — so a permanent extension can be negotiated and debated.

Meanwhile, Democrats and outside advocacy groups — who say the budget bill unfairly hurts the poor and middle class by reducing spending for Medicaid, student loans and other programs — have spent the past month pressuring some of the more liberal House Republicans to change their votes to no.

“I am very hopeful more Republicans will join us in opposing this bill and that we will actually be able to defeat it,” said Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee.

At least one Republican who supported the spending-cut bill last month — Rep. Rob Simmons of Connecticut — now says he will oppose it. Mr. Simmons explained in a statement on Wednesday that after listening to various groups and constituents over the past month, “the consensus is that the bill, despite the improvements, remains unsatisfactory.”

But leaders seem cautiously confident the bill will pass. “The anticipation is that there will be enough votes to pass it,” said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican.

The budget revote will be another big test for acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, who is in a tight race to win that role outright. “Most members aren’t in a position of reversing themselves on tough votes,” said a spokeswoman for Mr. Blunt, Missouri Republican. “Mr. Blunt is confident that members recognize the very negative consequences of delayed enactment.”

The bill is part of Republicans’ effort to rein in spending and control the size of the federal government.

The House this week also will consider a measure that would change House rules so lobbyists who are former members of Congress will have no access to the House floor or the House gym. More lobbying-related legislation is likely to follow this year, because Republicans are championing such reform in the wake of the scandal of indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

House and Senate leaders are also expected this week to name conferees who will negotiate a final tax-cut extension proposal. Each chamber passed such a bill last year, but the centerpiece of each is different.

The House bill would extend a reduced rate for investment income, while the Senate bill would prevent millions of Americans from having to pay the alternative minimum tax.

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