updated 5/20/2004 6:11:24 PM ET 2004-05-20T22:11:24

Republicans retreated Thursday and decided to postpone a Senate vote on their $2.4 trillion budget until at least next month, GOP aides said, averting a certain defeat by party moderates demanding curbs on future tax cuts.

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The decision, described by aides on condition of anonymity, was an election-year embarrassment for both the Republicans who control Congress and President Bush. It came just hours after Bush met privately with GOP lawmakers at the Capitol and urged them to push the 2005 budget through the Senate.

The House approved the measure, a compromise between the two Republican-run chambers, on Wednesday by a 216-213 vote.

Some Republicans expressed hope that the chamber would approve the compromise spending plan after Congress’ weeklong Memorial Day recess, which begins Friday.

Moderates, Democrats flex their muscle
But that could be a tall order: Four moderate GOP senators and moderate Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska have all resisted weeks of entreaties to support the budget, leaving GOP leaders two votes shy of passage.

The moderates, joined by Democrats, are unhappy because the plan lacks tax-cut curbs they say are merited by massive federal deficits. Those restrictions are opposed by Bush and GOP congressional leaders as roadblocks to their agenda of repeated tax cuts.

A stalemate over the issue has persisted for two months. Its continuation has overtaken earlier statements by GOP leaders that they would complete the plan on time — April 15 — to show how well they could govern. The 2005 budget year begins Oct. 1.

‘I'm still fishing’
Still shy of the votes they needed, Senate Republican leaders didn’t even begin debate on the budget by early Thursday evening.

“I’m still fishing, I still have my lure in the water” looking for votes, said Budget Committee Chairman Don Nickles, R-Okla.

The budget would increase defense and anti-terror spending and hold most domestic programs level. It would also deliver a fraction of the tax cuts Bush wants — along with a near-record $367 billion deficit.

The budget sets guidelines for future tax and spending legislation and does not need the president’s signature. Lawmakers can work on later measures without a budget, but they would lack its procedural advantages that would make those bills easier to pass.

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