House Backs $39 Billion in Budget Cuts

By a slim margin, the House approves a budget-cutting bill that would slash $39 billion from government programs. In a 216-214 vote, the House passed the bill, which includes $28 billion in controversial cuts for Medicaid. The measure now goes to President Bush.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. We're going to begin this hour on Capitol Hill in the House of Representatives. We'll hear about lobbying reform in a few minutes. First, the budget. The House had a revote of sorts today on a bill that slashes some $39 billion from government programs. It barely passed, 216 to 214. The Senate had made minor changes to the bill in December, forcing it back to the House. And, as NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports, that didn't make it any easier to win approval.

ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:

This is virtually the same bill the House passed before Christmas. Then, it squeaked through by a six-vote margin. Today, it passed by only a two-vote margin. The bill lost four Republican votes in the interim. In part, that's because the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office came out with estimates showing that the bill's $28 billion in cuts to Medicaid would reduce or cut off healthcare for some 13 million poor Americans.

Statistics like those only make the bill harder to support for some moderate Republicans, who felt queasy voting for it for the first time. And Democrats continued to hammer against it. Washington State's Jim McDermott said the way this budget bill was negotiated is an example of the bad lobbying ethics in Washington.

Representative JIM MCDERMOTT (Democrat, Washington): This vote will occur out in the open on the House floor, but the deals were cut in secret behind closed doors, with the American people locked out and the Republican Party locked in.

SEABROOK: McDermott accused Republicans of negotiating with pharmaceutical companies and special interest lobbyists when writing the bill rather than with Democrats. Michigan Democrat John Dingell said evidence of this is that the bill hurts poor people at the expense of big medical companies.

Representative JOHN DINGELL (Democrat, Michigan): This is a product of special interest lobbying, and the stench of special interest hangs over the chamber as we consider it today.

SEABROOK: And many Democrats decried the hypocrisy, they said, of cutting more than $12 billion dollars from student loan programs the day after President Bush, in his State of the Union address, pushed hard for stronger math and science education for young people. But conservative Republicans stuck to their guns. It was their insistence that pushed these cuts through Congress. Indiana's Mike Pence called them especially important in the face of ballooning government spending on hurricane relief efforts.

Representative MIKE PENCE (Republican, Indiana): The American people wanted Washington pay for Katrina with budget cuts, and Washington got the message.

SEABROOK: And many Republicans, including Georgia's Nathan Deal, called the Democrats' dire warnings hyperbole.

Representative NATHAN DEAL (Republican, Georgia): Medicaid is a program that is out of control. Even with the reforms of slowing it down by three-tenths of 1 percent over the next five years, it's still going to grow at an estimated 7 percent growth rate. And over the next ten years, we're going to be spending in state and federal money $5.2 trillion.

SEABROOK: So while this may have basically been a revote, all eyes in the Capitol were on the tally. And no one was watching it more closely than Missouri Republican Roy Blunt. He's the Acting Majority Leader and current Majority Whip. He's thought to be the leading candidate for the permanent position of Majority Leader, the election for which is tomorrow. Today's budget vote was seen by some as a test of Blunt's leadership skills, though Blunt was wary.

Representative ROY BLUNT (Republican, Missouri): If we once again pass this bill, it's not helpful to me, but there are those who'd like to take the other position, that if we don't pass it, somehow that reflects on this tough work and the narrow margin we have on a bill like this.

SEABROOK: Still, with Republicans opening an election year with this tough vote today and new leadership elections tomorrow, it could be the beginning of months of rough partisan tumbling.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

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