Senate cuts government benefits, first time in more than a decade

Thursday, December 22, 2005

WASHINGTON -- In the final clashes of a year of partisan conflict, the Senate dealt defeat Wednesday to legislation allowing oil drilling in the National Wildlife Refuge, but Republicans salvaged a $39.7 billion package of deficit cuts on Vice President Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote.

The fate of a third bill on the White House priority list, renewal of the anti-terror Patriot Act, hung on an unpredictable last-minute stab at compromise.

Even Cheney's presence and the 51-50 vote it meant in favor of deficit cuts left the White House and GOP leadership short of final victory on the measure. Democrats forced a few minor changes in the moments before it passed, enough to require the House to vote again before the measure can go to President Bush for his signature.

Bush monitored developments from a distance, calling the vote on the deficit-cutting bill "a victory for taxpayers, fiscal restraint and responsible budgeting." He attacked critics of the Patriot Act renewal, saying they "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."

The vote to block ANWR marked one of the signature triumphs of the year for Senate Democrats, who mounted a filibuster that Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska and others fell four votes short of breaking.

"Our military is being held hostage by this issue, Arctic drilling," said Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, one of several lawmakers who attacked Republicans for attaching the ANWR bill to legislation providing money for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Destroying this wilderness will do very little to reduce energy costs nor does it do very much for oil independence," added Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Supporters of the drilling proposal said tapping the reserves was an issue of national security, and would help reduce dependence on foreign oil.

Stevens, who has campaigned to allow oil drilling in the refuge for a quarter-century, made an unusually personal appeal. "Every one of you, have you ever come as chairman of appropriations and tell me you needed help for your state and I have turned you down?" he asked. "I have fought" to help, he added.

The early afternoon vote set the stage for more than six hours of back-room negotiations, as lawmakers struggled to arrange passage of the defense spending bill and other provisions attached to it. Among them was aid totaling $29 billion for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and other storms that hit the nation last fall.

Asked near dark whether a deal had been reached, Frist replied, "I wish."

In the end, 52 Republicans and four Democrats voted to advance the drilling legislation to a final vote, four fewer than the 60 needed. Voting "no" were 40 Democrats, three Republicans and one independent.

The demise of the ANWR legislation came not long after Cheney cast his tie-breaking vote on the deficit-cutting measure, which includes the first attempt in nearly a decade to curb the growth of federal benefit programs that serve millions of Americans.

"It's just a small down payment on the challenges that face this country in the years ahead," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said the legislation marked the only opportunity of the year to "reduce the rate of growth of the federal government."

The measure represented one of the top goals of congressional conservatives for the year, although Republicans also pointed out the savings amounted to a small slice of the anticipated federal spending over the next five years.

Democrats said that however it was described, it would fall too harshly on lower-income Americans.

Reid called the GOP legislation "ideologically driven," and Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., denounced it with sarcasm. He said it was prelude to $70 billion in tax cuts for the wealthy that Republicans plan to pass next year, a combination he said would increase red ink. "If you like deficits and debt, if you want to pass on a massive debt to our children, this is your chance."

The legislation, the product of a year's labor for the Republicans, would affect Medicare, Medicaid, student loans and other programs.

Home health care payments under Medicare would be frozen at current levels for a year, and Medicaid would be altered to make it harder for low-income elderly to qualify for federal nursing home benefits by turning assets over to their children.

The student loan program would be targeted for $12.6 billion in savings over five years, much of it from a change that would peg loans to a fixed interest rate. Business would be required to contribute $3.6 billion to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the federal agency that protects certain pension plans.

As was the case with ANWR, the vote closely followed party lines.

Five Republicans defected on the deficit-cutting votes, including Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Gordon Smith of Oregon and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. Snowe, Chafee and DeWine face re-election next year. Also in opposition were all 44 Democrats and Sen. James Jeffords, the Vermont independent.

"The vice president votes in the affirmative," Cheney said from his seat on the Senate dais, having returned early from an overseas trip to cast his tie-breaking vote.

The House passed the measure along party lines during the pre-dawn hours Monday. Democrats objected vociferously at the time, and seemed in no mood to reconsider. The party's leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, said she will insist it be re-examined "in the light of day" the next time.

It was not clear when that would be, since House GOP leaders have already sent lawmakers home for the year.

Nor was it clear whether talks would finally break a deadlock over the renewal of the Patriot Act, which has been blocked by a Democratic-led filibuster. Critics are seeking changes to offer greater protections for the rights of innocent Americans.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview with The Associated Press that a deal might be possible.

The partisanship seemed tinged with expressions of emotion at times.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, 88, and a friend of Stevens for decades, rose to oppose him.

"He is my friend. I love him. But I love the Senate more," said the West Virginia Democrat, arguing that Republicans were breaking the rules to achieve their political purposes.

Stevens responded a few minutes later, speaking more softly than his "Incredible Hulk" necktie might have led spectators to expect. "I've had great admiration for you and I've studied at your feet, but I do not believe that I deserve that speech on the rules," he said.

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