updated 5/18/2006 2:55:24 AM ET 2006-05-18T06:55:24

The House passed a $2.8 trillion budget blueprint early Thursday after GOP moderates won a promise for modest increases in spending on education, health and other social programs.

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The House passed the Republican plan by a 218-210 vote.

For GOP leaders, passage of the Republican plan avoided the embarrassment of not being able to pass a budget through the House for the first time since congressional budget rules were put in place in 1975.

It’s improbable, however, that the House and Senate will be able to agree on a mutual budget plan. Differences between House conservatives determined to stick with President Bush’s caps on agency budgets funded each year and Senate GOP moderates determined to breach them simply appear too great.

Ample differences
Still, the debate on the annual budget resolution — a nonbinding blueprint that sets the broad parameters for upcoming tax and spending bills — gave Democrats and Republicans ample opportunity to illustrate the differences between their parties.

Every Democrat who voted opposed the bill. Twelve Republicans, split between moderates opposed to budget cuts and conservatives worried about national debt and deficits, went against GOP leaders and voted “nay.”

For Republicans, the plan steers a steady path limiting the growth of spending while assuming $228 billion in additional tax cuts over five years, much of which would go toward extending GOP tax cuts slated to expire in 2010.

They credited existing tax cuts with a booming economy producing surging revenues that are driving current-year deficit estimates perhaps $100 billion below the record $423 billion in red ink predicted by the White House in February.

Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the GOP blueprint “strengthens our efforts to control spending and, coupled with a robust economy fueled by tax relief, is making real progress in driving down the deficit.”

The House vote came hours after President Bush signed a deficit-financed $70 billion tax cut bill extending lower rates for investors and saving billions for families with above-average incomes threatened by the alternative minimum tax.

But those tax plans are simply illustrative since the budget plan doesn’t take the necessary steps under Congress’ arcane budget process to facilitate their passage through the filibuster-prone Senate.

Democrats countered that the House GOP plan requires a $653 billion increase in the national debt to $9.6 trillion and that the deficits produced by the plan are likely to be far larger than the $1.1 trillion Republicans assume will accumulate under the measure if its policies are followed.

That’s because the measure doesn’t take account of the long-term costs of the war in Iraq or of shielding middle- to upper-income taxpayers from the alternative minimum tax. Many of the long-term spending cuts assumed by the GOP plan are politically unsustainable.

“The House Republican budget makes the deficit worse, offers no plan to bring the budget back to balance and adds to the growing burden of the national debt,” said John Spratt of South Carolina, top Democrat on the Budget Committee. “The Democratic budget ... rejects the Republican budget’s harmful cuts to domestic priorities while still reaching balance in 2012.”

Republicans voted down a Democratic alternative that contained more funding for popular domestic programs such as education, veterans health care and health research while balancing the budget by 2012 — but only by allowing hundreds of billions of dollars in GOP-passed tax cuts to expire.

This year’s budget plan, developed by the House Budget Committee and House GOP leaders, reflects election-year realities and drops Bush’s proposed cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, crop subsidies and other politically sensitive programs.

It still dismays moderates by adopting the president’s plan to trim spending by most Cabinet agencies other than the Pentagon and the Homeland Security Department. The plan endorses Bush’s proposed 7 percent increase in the core defense budget — which doesn’t include Iraq war costs — for next year.

Lower than expected figures for Afghanistan, Iraq
The Republican plan also assumes just $50 billion for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq — less than half of expected spending for the current year.

While the House GOP plan drops $65 billion in benefit cuts over five years proposed by Bush’s February budget, it goes further than Bush in attacking appropriated spending, the approximately one-third of the budget passed by Congress each year.

It would cut federal spending on education by more than $5 billion, about 7 percent. And after allowing for an increase next year, it would cut the politically sensitive budget for veterans medical care below current levels through the rest of the decade.

The deadline for Congress to wrap up the budget outline came and went a month ago, but divisions among House Republicans have kept party leaders from bringing the House version of the measure to a vote.

Led by Michael Castle of Delaware, Republican moderates refused to supply votes for the measure until GOP leaders promised to beef up the budget for social programs.

On Wednesday, however, Castle won a promise from Boehner for a 5 percent, or $7 billion, increase over Bush’s $138 billion request for a popular measure funding the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education.

Savings would have to come from elsewhere in the budget to pay for them, however.

Already, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., has orchestrated a shift of about $4 billion for such programs, taking the money from defense and foreign aid accounts. Virtually all of the bills approved so far by the powerful panel for domestic programs failed to live within Bush-proposed limits.

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