WASHINGTON—Congressional Republicans put some needed points on the board Friday, winning votes on tax and spending reductions that put a positive shine on two weeks of Republican legislative disasters.
But their success could be fleeting.
The tax and spending cuts are nowhere near ready to go to President Bush for his signature. And as the day wound down, Republicans were back in a jam, unable to secure votes to renew police powers spelled out in the Patriot Act.
All in all, the pre-Thanksgiving season was one of the most thankless periods for congressional Republicans since Bush became president. Democrats in the House of Representatives displayed rare unity, voting unanimously against the budget reductions. That gave moderate Republicans the balance of power—clout they haven't had these five years.
In an early morning vote, House Republican leaders won over enough moderates to pass nearly $50 billion in spending cuts over five years by 217-215. Shortly after midnight, the Senate passed nearly $60 billion in tax reductions over five years by 64-33, but only after appeasing moderates by agreeing not to extend a tax break on capital gains and dividends.
The votes were significant victories, given the difficulty Republicans had in finding compromises that satisfied enough moderates and conservatives within their ranks to assemble majorities. House Republican leaders had had to pull the budget bill off the floor last week in the face of opposition from both conservatives and moderates, which displayed Republican disunity in high profile.
While Friday's votes marked milestones, they aren't the end of the road. The House spending bill needs to be reconciled with a smaller Senate package cutting $35 billion over five years. On Friday, the House leadership gave up trying to secure votes for its own tax-cut plan, delaying negotiations with the Senate at least until next month.
That means Republican lawmakers now will take a two-week Thanksgiving break back home, where many will face organized liberal opposition to tax and spending reductions. That could make it even more difficult for Republican leaders to prevail when they return.
Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, said Republicans faced tough votes ahead.
"You're gone for two weeks, you come back with yet a different attitude or understanding of what you believe is necessary for us to do," he said in an interview. Democrats, he said, "want to be able to just go back and beat us up."
During Bush's first term, House Republicans were the model of discipline, occasionally relying on moderate Democrats to win victories on tax cuts, spending, prescription-drug legislation and other items on Bush's agenda.
But the tables have turned.
Democrats are the ones who now are marching in lockstep against the Republican tax and budget agenda.
"It works to the advantage of the moderates, yes," Republican Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a leading moderate from New York, said in an interview. "This is the moderates' moment, and their moment has been extended in terms of time. It's evident that our influence has increased."
He and other moderates won a number of concessions on the budget-reduction bill, including the elimination of a provision that would permit drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They also won extra money for home heating assistance and adjustments in spending cuts in food stamps. Overall, however, the budget bill still achieved most of its reductions by slowing spending in Medicaid, food stamps and student loans.
The Senate bill, while smaller, contains a provision to drill in Alaska. If House and Senate negotiators leave the drilling language in the final bill, House leaders probably will lose moderate votes, jeopardizing final passage.
"We promise to do our level best to make a difference on the (final bill) in a negative way if these commitments aren't honored," Boehlert said.
The Senate's post-midnight vote on the $60 billion tax-reduction bill came together only after Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, insisted that it exclude extending the maximum 15 percent tax rates on capital gains and dividends. The House's $56 billion tax-cut bill contains a two-year extension of that rate, but House leaders postponed a vote Friday afternoon as they worked to assure more votes.
Also in the Senate, the Patriot Act extension appeared dead after a strong minority of senators from both parties vowed to filibuster it. One sticking point was how long the act should be renewed: The Senate called for four years, the House for 10.
Still, Republican leaders declared themselves pleased with the day's outcome.
"This bill is a good first step towards addressing the long-term spending challenges in the federal budget," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said of the budget bill. "I am proud that House Republicans have put in the long hours and hard work necessary to make this happen."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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