WASHINGTON—In a stunning breakdown of Republican unity, House leaders failed Thursday to muster enough votes to pass $50 billion in budget savings, their ranks torn between moderate and conservative wings that rejected pleas for party discipline.
The GOP leaders, faced as well with unified Democratic opposition, were forced to pull the budget bill off the House floor rather than see it defeated.
At the same time, rebellion by Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine, blocked the Senate Finance Committee from approving a $70 billion tax-cut package, another Republican priority.
The disruptive rifts in Republican ranks in Congress underscored the changing political landscape in Washington, as President Bush's popularity is waning and the governing party faces mounting public opposition on everything from the war in Iraq to sky-high gasoline prices.
In addition, Democratic victories and Republican defeats in Tuesday's elections signaled to Republican moderates that voters may be tiring of hard-edged conservatism, stiffening the moderates' spines and will to challenge the leaders.
The House leadership's failure to pass budget cuts came even after Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., agreed to placate moderate Republicans by removing a provision authorizing oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)—a provision long sought by the Bush administration but opposed by environmentalists.
The abandonment of ANWR outraged some Republican conservatives, who threatened to oppose the bill. Yet the move still didn't mollify some Republican moderates, who thought the proposed $50 billion in spending cuts over five years concentrated too heavily on social programs that serve the old and the poor.
In addition, House Democrats, in a firm display of unity, had been prepared to vote against the budget-reduction package unanimously.
Together they sank the measure.
Acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said that "it's possible, I'd like to say likely" that the leadership would bring the bill back up next week. But the difficulty of assembling a majority in the now-fractious House was beyond argument.
"We weren't ready to go to the floor yet," Blunt acknowledged.
It was a rare concession. For most of Bush's presidency, the Republican-controlled House has led the way on Bush initiatives—voting in near lockstep and acting as a bulwark against the Senate's more-moderate tendencies.
But recent polls put Bush's job-approval ratings at record lows, and House GOP leaders find themselves working for votes without their most effective disciplinarian—former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who had to give up his leadership post when he was indicted on charges related to laundering illegal political contributions.
"The leadership is a little fragmented at this point, and they're dealing with both ends of the rainbow," said Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., referring to the pressure from conservatives and moderates.
The ANWR issue was pivotal. With 26 moderate Republicans threatening to join Democrats in voting against the budget bill if it included the oil-drilling provision, the GOP leaders agreed to remove it.
That prompted an outcry from drilling supporters, several of whom threatened to vote against the bill if ANWR was removed. Among them was Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
"How I vote on final passage right now is between me and my Maker," Barton said at midday, before the leadership pulled the plug on the bill.
The House Republican setback came on the same day that a key Senate committee failed to get agreement on nearly $70 billion in proposed tax cuts over five years—another Republican priority. The Finance Committee put off action on the tax package after Snowe declined to support it. No Democrat on the panel supports it.
Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who tried to negotiate an agreement between Snowe and conservatives, summed up his dilemma and, seemingly, those of House Republicans as well, when he said: "If I move one way, I lose a couple votes. If I move another way, I lose a couple votes."
The House budget fight was prompted by conservative activists clamoring for Congress to restrain spending. Many conservatives complain that the bill's $50 billion savings over five years was a pittance when budget deficits top $300 billion annually. But Democrats and moderates argued that many cuts targeted programs for the poor.
The Senate version would cut spending by only $35 billion over five years. It includes drilling in ANWR. If the House approves $50 billion in spending cuts without the oil-drilling provision, the two bills would have to be reconciled in a joint House-Senate conference, then passed in each chamber anew.
House GOP leaders said there were no guarantees that the House-Senate conferees would not put ANWR drilling back in.
"We take this issue on one vote at a time," said Rep. David Drier, R-Calif., a member of the leadership team. "Every single one of the members involved in the discussion that we had on exploration of ANWR understood that very, very well."
But Republican ANWR opponents said that if ANWR drilling is in the final House-Senate version, they would vote against the budget bill.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2007