The Republican-controlled Senate passed legislation to cut federal deficits by $39.7 billion on Wednesday by the narrowest of margins, 51-50, with Vice President Dick Cheney casting the deciding vote.
The measure, the product of a year's labors by the White House and congressional Republicans, imposes the first restraints in nearly a decade of federal benefit programs such as Medicaid, Medicare and student loans.
"This is the one vote you'll have this year to reduce the rate of growth of the federal government," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, in a final plea for passage.
But Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada countered that the GOP was advancing "an ideologically driven, extreme, radical budget. It caters to lobbyists and an elite group of ultraconservative ideologues here in Washington, all at the expense of middle class Americans," he said.
Cheney flies back in nick of time
Republicans signaled earlier in the week they would need the vice president to be present for the final vote on deficit cuts, and he flew back early from an overseas diplomatic mission.
"The vice president votes in the affirmative," he said, speaking only a few words as dictated by Senate custom. He wasn't the only one who made an unexpected trip back to Washington. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., flew back on Tuesday night. He has been recuperating at home from knee replacement surgery, and he made his way into the Senate with the aid of a walker.
The roll call delivered less than the final victory Republicans had hoped for.
In maneuvering in advance of the final vote, Democrats succeeded in forcing minor change that will require the House to return to Washington to vote on the bill before it can be sent to President Bush for his signature.
Passage is all but certain, but the timing remains in question, since most House members have returned home for the holidays.
The vote came on the first of two major measures facing tests in the Senate during the day.
On the second, Republicans were unable to muster enough votes to prevent a threatened Democratic filibuster aimed at preventing a vote open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
Cuts make small dent in deficit
By themselves, the deficit cuts included in the five-year bill would amount to only 2.5 percent of projected shortfalls totaling $1.6 trillion over the same time frame. Republicans said the significance lies in more than mere numbers, adding that programs such as Medicare and Medicaid threaten to consume an unsustainable amount of federal revenue if their growth is not trimmed quickly.
Home health care payments under Medicare would be frozen at current levels for a year under the bill, Medicaid regulations would be changed to make it harder for the elderly to qualify for federal nursing home benefits by turning assets over to their children.
Lender subsidies are reduced as part of an attempt to squeeze $12.6 billion from student loan programs. Another provision raises $3.6 billion for the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the federal agency that protects certain pension plans. The money would come from an increase in the premium employers pay for each covered worker or retiree, and from a fee on companies that end their pension plans.
Billions more would come from programs unrelated to benefit programs. The legislation assumes $10 billion in federal receipts from the sale of part of the analog spectrum, for example.
Five Republicans cross party lines
All 44 Democrats voted against the measure, as did Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, an independent. Five of 55 Republicans crossed party lines to oppose the bill as well. They were Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Gordon Smith of Oregon, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. Of them, Chafee, DeWine and Snowe are seeking re-election next year.
It was the seventh time since Cheney became vice president that he used his powers to break a tie vote, according to records maintained by the Office of the Secretary of the Senate.