Monday, December 19, 2005

House and Senate negotiators yesterday reached year-end deals on a $42 billion budget-cuts package and a $453 billion defense-spending bill that includes a provision allowing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Now Republican leaders just have to find the votes to pass the bills.

Senate Democrats will try to filibuster the spending bill, arguing that adding the drilling provision at the last minute was a perversion of Senate rules.

“These rules mean nothing. It’s like a game of monopoly with grade-school kids. But this is the United States Senate,” said Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, before using a parliamentary technique to shut down floor action all night.

He also said he would not consent to passing any of President Bush’s pending nominations this year, which in effect blocks seven district court judges and the president’s picks to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Majority Leader Bill Frist, in a sharp attack on his counterpart, said Mr. Reid can’t back up his threats on the spending bill.

“The flailing of arms and false bravado reflects the frustration of Harry Reid,” Mr. Frist said, adding that he wouldn’t have gone ahead with the drilling provision if he didn’t think he could win the votes Mr. Reid will force.

The House was headed toward passing the defense bill and the budget bill overnight, and Republican leaders in that chamber said the budget deal was a major accomplishment.

“House Republicans promised the American people that we would restrain federal spending and reform government programs,” said Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican.

The bill slows the growth of Medicaid and Medicare. Still, some conservatives were irked to find that Mr. Frist had included nearly $4 billion in new spending to what was supposed to be the budget-cutting bill.

The Tennessee Republican announced yesterday that the bill includes $3.75 billion over five years for educational grants for low-income students to attend college. One program would give $750 to first-year college students who have a 3.0 grade point average, and another program would give $4,000 to third- or fourth-year students who major in math, engineering, technology or a critical foreign language.

The Republican Study Committee, the conservative caucus in the House, posted a Web log item noting that “without this new $3.75 billion spending increase in the bill, there would be $3.75 billion more in federal government savings, and thus the deficit would be reduced even further.”

With so many last-minute deals, Mr. Reid said other questionable provisions are bound to have snuck into bills — particularly the defense appropriations bill.

“What do you think’s in there? You’re going to have a couple days to look at it,” he said, referring to his threat to use every procedural tool to make Republicans suffer for trying to attach the drilling provision.

The bill includes $29 billion for hurricane assistance and recovery, nearly $4 billion to address the avian flu and a 1 percent cut across all discretionary spending except for Veterans Affairs.

But drilling is the major sticking point — as it has been for years.

Senators usually block drilling by filibuster, so this year, Republicans tried to pass the provisions as part of their budget, which cannot be filibustered.

But some Republican senators objected, and leaders had to remove it from the budget package.

Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican and the main champion of drilling, is also chairman of the Appropriations defense subcommittee and proposed attaching drilling to the defense spending bill. Yesterday, the House-Senate conference committee voted to approve his plan, with all Republicans and one Democrat in each chamber supporting it.

Mr. Frist said it was the right move. He said that because a majority of senators have voted for drilling in the past, attaching it to another bill is justified.

But Mr. Reid was furious.

“We’ve become like the House of Commons. Whoever has the most votes wins. It hasn’t worked that way in 216 years,” he said.

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