Thursday, May 18, 2006

House conservatives say they scored key spending reform victories in the $2.7 trillion budget approved early yesterday, but major changes are needed to achieve the fiscal discipline promised when Republicans took over the chamber more than a decade ago.

“The budget, while not visionary, was an important first step,” said Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican and chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC).

“There’s a huge way to go,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican. “It takes time. … It’s like turning a battleship.”

The House approved the blueprint for 2007 spending by a vote of 218-210 after weeks of negotiations between conservative and more liberal Republican factions. Twelve Republicans and all 197 House Democrats who voted opposed the bill, as did the one independent member. Four Democrats and one Republican did not vote.

Mr. Pence said conservatives’ greatest victory was holding the line on President Bush’s $873 billion limit for discretionary spending, despite what Mr. Pence said was “overwhelming pressure” from the more liberal wing to spend more.

“We stood firm; our leadership stood firm,” he said.

Conservatives also highlighted “significant” victories secured from leaders during negotiations, including the promise of votes on line-item veto authority, inclusion of earmark reform in a recently passed lobbying reform bill, and a hard-fought provision that would define and limit “emergency” spending, making it more difficult to add pet projects to such legislation. For 2007, the budget sets that emergency level at $6.4 billion.

Mr. Bush praised the move in the House, and Majority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, called the budget “a major demonstration of Republicans’ commitment to return fiscal discipline.”

Conservatives said spending was still too high, that cuts to massive entitlement programs were inadequate and that the plan will raise the national debt.

The bill increases discretionary spending for defense and homeland security while holding other discretionary spending flat. It assumes $228 billion in tax relief and culls $6.8 billion in savings from entitlements programs over five years.

“Even though this budget still spends too much,” the reform victories represent “a turning point in the battle over spending,” Mr. Hensarling said.

He called the emergency spending item a crucial tool. “There is now at least a stoplight on the road to spending,” he said.

Mr. Hensarling this week offered an RSC alternative modeled after the budget House Republicans approved in 1995. Called “Contract With America Renewed,” it would have balanced the budget in five years, trimmed $358 billion from entitlement programs, capped annual Medicare growth, eliminated 150 federal programs and restructured three federal agencies. It was approved by 94 Republicans and opposed by 134, including 32 RSC members, even though nearly half of them supported the 1995 budget.

“There’s been a shift” in the party since 1995, Mr. Pence said, but he was encouraged that House Republican leaders backed the RSC plan this week.

“This was truly an effort to return to the bold and visionary leadership of the ‘94 revolution,” he said.

Democrats, meanwhile, argued that the budget approved by the House shortchanged key social programs to allow more tax cuts for the rich and increase debt.

“The misplaced priorities demonstrated in this budget are astounding,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat.

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