Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Dr. Evil Breaks The Tie. Here We Go....

By ANDREW TAYLOR, Associated Press Writer 35 minutes ago

The Republican-controlled Senate passed legislation to cut federal deficits by $39.7 billion on Wednesday by the narrowest of margins, 51-50, with Vice President Dick Cheney casting the deciding vote.

The measure, the product of a year's labors by the White House and the GOP in Congress, imposes the first restraints in nearly a decade in federal benefit programs such as Medicaid, Medicare and student loans.

"This is the one vote you'll have this year to reduce the rate of growth of the federal government," said Sen. Judd Gregg (news, bio, voting record), R-N.H., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, in a final plea for passage.

But Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada countered that the GOP was advancing "an ideologically driven, extreme, radical budget. It caters to lobbyists and an elite group of ultraconservative ideologues here in Washington, all at the expense of middle class Americans," he said.

The roll call delivered less than the final victory Republicans had hoped for.

In maneuvering in advance of the final vote, Democrats succeeded in forcing minor changes. That meant the House, which approved the measure on a party-line vote in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, will have to do so again before it can be sent to President Bush for his signature. Passage is all but certain, but the timing remains in question, since most House members have returned home for the holidays.

The vote came on the first of two major measures facing tests in the Senate during the day.

On the second, Republicans maneuvered to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Democrats opposed that measure with a filibuster, and Republicans scrambled for the 60 votes needed to prevail.

With senators of both parties eager to adjourn for the year, other major bills remained in limbo.

President Bush made a last-minute pitch to rescue the anti-terror Patriot Act from a Democratic-led filibuster. "This obstruction is inexcusable," he said at the White House. "The senators obstructing the Patriot Act need to understand that the expiration of this vital law will endanger America and will leave us in a weaker position in the fight against brutal killers."

Critics of the legislation say it could pass easily, if Republicans would agree to include more protection for the civil liberties of innocent Americans.

By themselves, the deficit cuts included in the five-year bill would amount to only 2.5 percent of projected shortfalls totaling $1.6 trillion over the same time frame. Republicans said the significance lies in more than mere numbers, adding that programs such as Medicare and Medicaid threaten to consume an unsustainable amount of federal revenue if their growth is not trimmed quickly.

Home health care payments under Medicare would be frozen at current levels for a year under the bill, Medicaid regulations would be changed to make it harder for the elderly to qualify for federal nursing home benefits by turning assets over to their children.

Lender subsidies are reduced as part of an attempt to squeeze $12.6 billion from student loan programs. Another provision raises $3.6 billion for the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the federal agency that protects certain pension plans. The money would come from an increase in the premium employers pay for each covered worker or retiree, and from a fee on companies that end their pension plans.

Billions more would come from programs unrelated to benefit programs. The legislation assumes $10 billion in federal receipts from the sale of part of the analog spectrum, for example.

Republicans signaled earlier in the week they would need the vice president to be present for the final vote on deficit cuts, and he flew back early from an overseas diplomatic mission.

"The vice president votes in the affirmative," he said, speaking only a few words as dictated by Senate custom. He wasn't the only one who made an unexpected trip back to Washington. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., flew back on Tuesday night. He has been recuperating at home from knee replacement surgery, and he made his way into the Senate with the aid of a walker.

All 44 Democrats voted against the measure, as did Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, an independent. Five of 55 Republicans crossed party lines to oppose the bill as well. They included Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, as well as Sens. Gordon Smith of Oregon, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. Of them, Chafee, DeWine and Snowe are seeking re-election next year.

It was the seventh time since Cheney became vice president that he used his powers to break a tie vote, according to records maintained by the Office of the Secretary of the Senate.

With lawmakers eager to adjourn for the holidays, the Senate moved almost immediately into a debate on the ANWR oil drilling provisions.

"We open up the small area of the coastal plain...for oil exploration and development," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (news, bio, voting record), R-Alaska. She called making the oil available a matter of national security.

"Destroying this wilderness will do very little to reduce energy costs, nor does it do very much for oil independence...and it would offer a number of false hopes," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (news, bio, voting record), D-Calif. She said a change in the mileage requirements for SUVs could produce the same level of savings in the drive to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

The fate of the ANWR legislation, like the deficit-cutting measure, seemed to hinge on the narrowest of margins. This time, Cheney was not a factor, though, since supporters of the bill needed 60 votes to overcome last-ditch Democratic opposition.

Maneuvering for maximum leverage, Republicans put the ANWR provision on legislation that provides $453 billion for the Pentagon, including $50 billion to pay for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The legislation also includes $29 billion in aid for victims of Katrina and the other hurricanes that lashed the United States earlier this year.

Democrats worked to sustain their filibuster, pointing out that the defense money could pass easily without the legislation to open the national wildlife refuge to oil exploration.

Copyright © 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.
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