updated 12/20/2005 1:13:51 PM ET 2005-12-20T18:13:51

A Senate vote on a deficit-reduction bill looks to be so tight that Vice President Dick Cheney was rushing home Tuesday from an overseas diplomatic mission to be the tiebreaker for saving one of the Bush administration’s top priorities.

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The showdown vote loomed on the bill, which would cut some federal benefits and trim budget deficits by $40 billion through the end of the decade.

Cheney was in Pakistan Tuesday to check on U.S. aid to victims of an October earthquake that killed as estimated 75,000 people. He also met with President Pervez Musharraf.

The budget vote is expected to be a close one — last month the bill squeaked through the Senate in a 52-47 tally. Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson was one of two Democrats voting for the bill then, but said Tuesday he will vote against the bill, in large part because provisions on Medicaid and welfare reform would shift costs to state and local governments.

Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, the other Democrat to support the budget last month, is set to switch her vote since the bill no longer contains aid for Katrina victims, which has been attached to another measure. Sen. Jon Corzine, a Democrat elected governor of New Jersey, was absent last month but hopes to return to the Capitol for the final vote.

Five Republicans are also expected to oppose the bill; one Republican who opposed the bill last month is expected to switch his vote.

The vote shifts set up a 50-50 deadlock assuming all senators vote as they've indicated, requiring Cheney’s return to Washington to salvage the budget plan with a tie-breaking vote.

Cheney ready to cast tie-breaker
Cheney spokesman Steve Schmidt told reporters traveling with Cheney in Pakistan that the vice president was “returning to Washington to be on hand in the Senate to fulfill his constitutional duties as president of the Senate and cast tie-breaking votes, if necessary.”

Presiding over the Senate is among Cheney’s constitutional duties, although vice presidents historically have not routinely attended such sessions. Cheney’s change in plans meant that he would have to forgo visits to both Saudi Arabia and Egypt on this trip.

A tight vote was also expected as Senate Republicans waged a Christmas week battle with Democrats and GOP moderates over allowing oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, attached the drilling plan to a wartime Pentagon spending bill that also included $29 billion in new aid for Gulf Coast hurricane victims and as well as new money for border security and winter heating subsidies in an attempt to crack a threatened filibuster. Both the defense and budget bills were passed by the House on Monday before it adjourned for the year.

On the budget bill, five Republicans are expected to vote against it: Mike DeWine of Ohio; Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine; Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island; and Gordon Smith of Oregon. Smith voted for the bill last month but is a “nay” vote now, largely because of cuts to Medicaid benefits.

But Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who opposed the bill last month over provisions allowing Arctic drilling, has switched to “yea” since the drilling plan was dropped.

The partisan fighting over the budget seemed to outweigh the measure’s likely impact. The $40 billion in deficit savings blends $10 billion in new revenues from anticipated auctions of television airwaves to wireless companies with fairly small cuts to benefit programs like Medicare, Medicaid and student loan subsidies.

Vote on Arctic drilling looks close
Opinions varied on whether Stevens, the powerful patron of the Arctic refuge drilling plan, would prevail in overcoming a filibuster threatened by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and others.

Overall, the deficit reduction bill claimed savings of $39.7 billion over five years. That’s just 2.5 percent of the $1.6 trillion in total red ink that congressional officials estimate will pile up during the same period. The slender results nonetheless pleased GOP conservatives.

The savings included $4.8 billion from Medicaid, the health care program for the poor. One provision would make it harder for beneficiaries to transfer assets to their children in order to qualify for government-paid nursing home care, which has raised the ire of the AARP, the powerful lobby for seniors.

Drug companies won a last-minute break against cuts to their Medicaid payments at the expense of beneficiaries, who face higher co-payments that advocates for the poor say will drive people out of the program. Regional health insurance companies, another powerful lobby, stopped a Senate bid to cut a subsidy fund designed to entice them into the Medicare market.

Moderate Republicans in the Senate also were angry over a last-minute deal to extend the 1996 welfare reform law. They complained it didn’t provide enough child care help as more parents will have to meet work requirements to obtain benefits.

Among the Medicare changes was a one-year freeze in home health care payments. A second provision accelerates a previously scheduled increase for better-off beneficiaries in the cost of premiums for Part B, which covers physician services.

Proposed cuts in food stamps and crop subsidies were dropped from the package.

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