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Senate Poised for Showdown on the Budget
By ANDREW TAYLOR Associated Press Writer
December 20, 2005

WASHINGTON Dec 21, 2005 — Senate Republicans expressed optimism as legislation to curb the budget deficit by shaving benefit programs will move toward a crucial vote.

But with lawmakers increasingly eager to adjourn for the holidays, another bill funding the Pentagon and rushing new relief to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast faced a less certain future Wednesday because of a plan to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Its passage was not assured as Democrats dug in for a filibuster and Republicans scratched for the 60 votes needed to prevail.

Vice President Dick Cheney rushed home from the Middle East to be on hand to cast a potential tie-breaking vote on the centerpiece of the GOP's budget agenda a $39.7 billion bill cutting federal benefit programs like Medicare and Medicaid for the first time in eight years.

Ordinarily, Senate passage of the House-Senate compromise measure would clear the bill for the president's signature. Senate Democrats, however, discovered flaws in the bill that subject it to arcane procedural maneuvers that would probably force it back to the House for a revote on a slightly modified version.

The House passed the bill near dawn Monday before interested parties such as AARP, the powerful seniors lobby, could weigh in with opposition. Any revote by the House would probably not occur before next year and delays in implementing the bill could rob it of some of its savings.

"If we prevail, this would have to go back to the House," said Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, top Democrat on the Budget Committee.

Meanwhile, the immediate fate of a $453 billion defense budget bill which carries an additional $29 billion or more in new aid for the Gulf Coast, $3.8 billion to combat the avian flu and $2 billion to double this year's budget for heating subsidies was in doubt.

A decision by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, to add a hotly contested plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling prompted a brawl with drilling opponents and Democrats who complained that he was exploiting the must-pass defense and hurricane aid bill to benefit his state and the oil industry.

Both Republicans and Democrats said a vote to break a filibuster and overcome another procedural challenge would be close. Republicans calculated that at least some drilling opponents would balk at slowing funding for the Pentagon and the war, as well as critically needed aid along the Gulf Coast.

"That would be absolutely horrible news for our Gulf states," said Sen. David Vitter, R-La.

The $29 billion aid package was 70 percent higher than a White House request that was deemed insufficient by Gulf Coast lawmakers.

Republicans were more confident about prevailing on the budget measure, though it was shaping up as a 50-50 tie with Cheney casting a rare tie-breaking vote.

As many as five of 55 Republicans appeared ready to defect on the bill, which would make the first significant curbs in federal benefit programs in nearly a decade. They were Sens. Gordon Smith of Oregon, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine.

"The budget reconciliation bill now before the U.S. Senate includes draconian cuts to vital health, education and child support enforcement programs," Collins said. Among the provisions Collins dislikes are new co-payments for poor people receiving health care from Medicaid and $12.6 billion in cuts to lender subsidies within the student loan program.

Chafee, DeWine and Snowe are seeking new terms next year.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., announced his opposition Tuesday, joining the Senate's other 43 Democrats. Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., is also expected to vote against.

The budget in particular was important to GOP spending hawks worried that their core political supporters were losing faith in Republicans' ability to carry out their promises to cut spending. Despite the modest savings, Republicans called the benefit cut measure a good first step. Conservatives were also heartened by a 1 percent across-the-board cut to agency budgets that Congress funds each year.

Democrats said it was folly to call the GOP package a deficit-cutting plan since, when combined with a $70 billion or so tax bill to follow early next year, it will increase the deficit by about $30 billion.

Senate leaders agreed to try to wrap up major Senate business for the year on Wednesday. That left the fate of the USA Patriot Act reauthorization unclear. A Democratic-led filibuster blocked a renewal of the anti-terrorism measure last week, with critics of the bill demanding changes to protect the civil liberties of innocent Americans.