updated 11/10/2005 5:36:17 PM ET 2005-11-10T22:36:17

House Republican leaders scuttled a vote Thursday on a $51 billion budget-cut package in the face of a revolt by lawmakers over scaling back Medicaid, food stamp and student loan programs.

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The development was a major setback for the GOP on Capitol Hill and for President Bush, who has made cuts to benefit programs a central pillar in his budget plan.

The decision by GOP leaders came despite a big concession to moderates Wednesday, when the leaders dropped provisions to open the Arctic National Refuge to oil and gas exploration, as well as a plan allowing states to lift a moratorium on oil drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

“We weren’t quite ready to go to the floor,” Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said five hours after recessing the House for closed-door meetings aimed at picking up votes from wavering Republicans

Blunt said some members still had concerns, indicating GOP leaders were willing to make additional concessions in an attempt to round up support.

“I think we’ll have the votes next week,” he said.

Loyal opposition
Many of the same moderates opposed to the drilling plan remain opposed to the bill’s provisions curbing Medicaid’s growth, tightening eligibility for food stamps and cutting student loan subsidies.

“I have to represent my district,” said Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Ill. He represents farmers, who are opposed to cuts in commodity payments, as well as the University of Illinois campus, which is upset about cuts to student loans. “At this point, I am very, very skeptical,” he said.

The overall bill is a Republican priority. The Senate last week passed a milder version to curb the automatic growth of federal spending by $35 billion through the end of the decade.

The House plan cuts more deeply across a broader range of social services and targets more of the cuts at beneficiaries. Republican leaders say the effects will be modest to programs like the Medicaid health system for the poor and disabled. That system would still grow much faster than inflation even after beneficiaries face increased copayments and the likely loss of some benefits.

“We are not cutting Medicaid for those truly in need,” said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif.

The House convened Thursday and almost immediately went into a lengthy recess as GOP leaders including Blunt and House Speaker Dennis Hastert worked to assemble support for the bill. In meetings with rank-and-file lawmakers, the leaders signaled a willingness to ease cuts to the Medicaid program.

Setback for new GOP House leadership
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said Republicans “simply do not have the votes.”

“The Republican budget was about increasing the deficit, cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the middle class and hurting those who need our help most — hurricane survivors, seniors, students, and rural Americans,” Pelosi said. “Democrats were united and made those issues too hot to handle for Republicans.”

The development was also a setback for the reshuffled House leadership. Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was forced to step aside in September after his indictment on criminal conspiracy and money laundering charges. Blunt assumed the majority leader’s post.

Bipartisan support, opposition
Initial efforts by GOP leaders to shore up support for the bill by dropping the oil-drilling provisions won back roughly a dozen moderates, said Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. But other GOP moderates such as Mike Castle, R-Del., remained unconvinced. Castle said he met twice with Hastert Thursday but the House’s top leader had not secured his vote.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Thursday the president was pleased that Congress was moving forward with deficit-reduction packages but that he still strongly supported opening a portion of the wildlife refuge to oil exploration.

“We continue to urge passage of that initiative,” McClellan said. “It’s vital to helping us reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy and helping to reduce high energy prices.”

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