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Difficult budget talks ahead in Congress

It wasn't easy to get fractious House Republicans to vote for a budget bill that lays out nearly $50 billion in savings. But upcoming negotiations with the Senate may be even more difficult.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It was no easy feat to get fractious House Republicans to vote for a budget bill that lays out nearly $50 billion in savings. Yet it may prove to be a cakewalk compared with upcoming talks with the Senate.

For starters, the budget plan passed only after GOP leaders jettisoned a contentious plan to allow oil exploration in an Alaskan wilderness area. By doing so, they sidestepped a threat by about two dozen moderates to defeat the budget measure over that issue alone.

Pro-drilling advocates in both the House and Senate are sure to insist on restoring the provision during negotiations next month; it’s already in the Senate’s plan. Otherwise, they will kill the overall budget proposal.

That threat was made clear by the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The tally on the budget plan was 216-215 when Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, walked to the House well to cast the last vote.

A vote against the plan would have killed it, and Barton ardently supported drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In the end, however, Barton reluctantly voted for the budget. But his message was unmistakable: not again.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., says that resolving the drilling issue will be like threading a needle.

“I wish (the needle) had a little bigger eye,” Hastert said.

The budget plan is central to the GOP agenda that lawmakers hope to wrap up next month.

Republicans originally planned $35 billion in savings by trimming the growth of Medicaid, food stamps, student loan subsidies and other benefit programs.

House conservatives upset with the deficit and a surge in spending for hurricane disaster relief forced GOP leaders to raise the ante to almost $50 billion in savings. In doing so, they forced a more politically difficult vote because the budget plan in the House took far greater aim at programs for the poor than did the Senate’s version.

Moderates in both the House and Senate expect the final bill to smooth out many of the House bill’s rough edges.

Oil drilling is only one of the difficult issues facing House-Senate negotiators:

  • Medicare. While the House plan does not propose changes to the health care program for older people, the Senate’s does. The White House has threatened a veto over a proposal to kill subsidies for some regional health insurers that offered Medicare prescription drug coverage. Those savings help finance $11 billion to give doctors a reprieve next year from a scheduled 4.3 percent cut in their Medicare payments.
  • Milk income subsidies. The Senate bill awards dairy farmers a $1 billion extension of milk income payments. Hastert promised lawmakers from dairy-producing states such as New York and Minnesota that the program would be extended. But opposition from Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and senators from states where large dairy farms do not benefit from the program could block the extension.
  • Medicaid. The House bill saves almost $12 billion from Medicaid, the health care program for the poor and disabled. Beneficiaries would face new cost-sharing burdens and states could scale back coverage under the House plan. The Senate plan would save far less money and rely on drug companies, pharmacies and insurance subsidies for much of the savings.
  • Student loans. The House plan saves more than $14 billion through changes to the student loan program, including curbs to lender subsidies and new fees on college graduates and parents who consolidate loans. Interest rates on most loans would vary according to the market. The Senate plan maintains current law, which fixes interest rates at 6.8 percent and provides $8 billion in increased grants for low- and middle-income students.

Hastert was simply happy to get the measure through the House.

“You’ve got to get through the first round before you get to the championship, and we’re getting there,” he said.