Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Top Senate Republicans yesterday threw their support behind a package of new tools to rein in federal spending, including spending caps, a presidential line-item veto authority and a two-year budget.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, flanked by about a dozen Senate Republicans, said the budget process is broken and encourages spending instead of saving.

The bill, dubbed “S.O.S.: Stop Over-Spending,” will reform the budget process, said Mr. Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, who along with Mr. Frist is stepping up his role in the Republican Party’s election-year war on spending.

House Republicans have been more proactive in advancing budget reform ideas this year, and yesterday, the House Budget Committee approved line-item-veto legislation that will likely reach the House floor next week, along with a commission to set sunset dates for wasteful federal programs, both of which were demanded by House conservatives.

“We’re just glad they’re finally getting on board,” one House Republican aide said of the Senate.

The senators’ budget reform effort comes as the Senate prepares today to clear for President Bush a $94.5 billion emergency spending bill for Iraq, the war on terror, hurricane recovery, avian flu and border security. The Senate’s version of the bill ballooned to about $109 billion and contained a host of unrelated items, but House and Senate negotiators cut about $14 billion from the final bill, avoiding a presidential veto.

Mr. Gregg’s committee will vote on his new budget reform package next week, but it’ll likely have a tougher time after that.

Mr. Frist said, “We’ll do as much (of the package) as we possibly can.”

The Senate bill would:

• Switch to federal budgets that cover two years to free up time for more congressional oversight.

• Establish a process to reduce the deficit and balance the budget by 2012, including automatic reductions in the growth of entitlement programs if Congress doesn’t meet targets.

• Set caps on discretionary spending and enforce them through across-the-board cuts if Congress doesn’t voluntarily adhere.

• Allow the president to target specific spending items in bills and ask Congress to kill the items.

• Create a commission to set sunset dates for wasteful federal programs and another commission to examine ways to fix entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Still, even bill supporters admit that the package will be a heavy lift for many senators, especially those who dole out the money each year.

Former Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, was skeptical.

“I’m going to have to study it and see if there’s a way we can live with it,” he said.

But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, blasted the bill as election-year cover for nervous Republicans.

“It’s a political ploy to make up for the fact that under Republican leadership, we’ve run up the largest deficits,” he said.

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