House passes budget resolution as Democrats rail
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The House of Representatives passed a House-Senate compromise version of the fiscal 2002 budget resolution Wednesday afternoon amid fierce Democratic criticism that the majority Republicans are poised to stage later raids on Medicare and Social Security to finance their priorities.
The measure, which sets spending parameters for the congressional appropriations process, squeaked by with three votes to spare, 221-207. With 435 members in the House, 218 votes were required for passage.
Six Democrats broke ranks to support the resolution, which may face an even tougher time in the Senate. Three Republicans chose not to support it.
Passage came one day after House and Senate Republicans agreed on the $1.97 trillion compromise, and the joint conference committee followed suit by passing out the resolution to each house. The full amount of federal spending mirrors the budget blueprint sent to the Congress by President Bush in February, with some spending priorities shifted.
The resolution calls for $1.35 billion in tax relief over the next 11 years, somewhat less than Bush's proposed $1.6 trillion cut over 10 years. Bush's plan was sidetracked in April when the Senate shaved billions off the tax cut in favor of increased education spending.
"This conference report illustrates how working together can benefit all Americans, both taxpayers and those who depend on federal programs," said Rep. Porter Goss, D-Florida, as the morning's debate opened. "This debate is not about winning or losing. It is about treating American taxpayers fairly."
Should the resolution clear the Senate, the next phase of the budget process will begins with congressional appropriations subcommittees setting annual allocations for the federal government's departments and agencies, and the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees drafting tax relief bills that conform to the budget resolution.
The 2002 fiscal year begins on October 1 of this year. Republicans hope to have a tax-relief bill signed into law by Memorial Day, just three weeks away.
Republicans praised the day's developments, saying House approval of the resolution represented the first time in more than two decades that an administration-drafted federal budget was passed in its near-entirety.
"Presidential budgets have always been declared 'dead on arrival,' as long as I have been here," said Rep. David Drier, R-California.
Dems: 'They'll be back for more'
Democrats were livid, saying the conference report shaved $21 billion from Bush's original calls for education allocations, and even more than what the Senate had called for in March.
"Each day that this debate goes on, education is losing ground," said Rep. Rush Holt, D-New Jersey.
"We can see the dollar figure cut out of the education budget that was put in by the Senate," said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Washington. "That number is minus $294 billion.
Inslee took a poke at the president's occasional verbal miscues as he continued. "The president recently asked, 'Is our children learning?' Well in this budget, they is not."
Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, chairman of the Budget Committee, said Democrats were making the wrong argument.
"This isn't a county sale barn where we're bidding on a prize heifer. There is more we need to do. We need reform," Nussle said.
Many Democrats argued that the budget did nothing to shore up the Medicare and Social Security trust funds, and accused the Republicans of planning to come back later during the appropriations process to siphon money out of both to bolster the tax package and boost defense spending, which does not receive significant cash infusions in the resolution.
"Later in the year, the Republicans will be back before this House seeking greater money for defense and broader tax cuts ... and when they do that, they will be seeking money from the Medicare and Social Security trust funds," said Rep. Martin Frost. D-Texas.
Republicans insisted they were being misrepresented, saying the budget sets aside some $300 billion for Medicare reform that will include a prescription drug benefit for seniors.
Days of closed-door meetings
Tuesday's budget deal was hammered out after days of closed-door meetings, including spirited talks off the Senate floor Tuesday. Republicans believe they now have the votes to get the budget outline through the evenly divided Senate, which is expected to vote on the measure later Wednesday or Thursday.
White House and GOP Senate leaders managed to cleared a major hurdle by reaching agreement with moderate Democrats on the 11-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut that explicitly calls for $100 billion to be used for a stimulus in the next two years.
Some of those centrist Senate Democrats also complained that the removal of the education spending that was in the budget resolution the first time it passed the Senate, and they were demanding a $6 billion increase in exchange for their votes.
But senior GOP and White House aides said they decided to "hold the line on spending," banking on getting enough votes from moderate Democrats who wanted to support tax cuts. Fifteen moderate Senate Democrats, led by Sen. John Breaux, D-Louisiana, held the key to passing an earlier Senate version of Bush's budget.
That version included a smaller tax cut and higher spending.
Breaux admitted the coalition was now fractured, but he said he never thought all of the centrist Democrats would vote for the final budget resolution after it came out of the House-Senate conference.
Breaux said he still hoped it would gain enough support to send a strong bipartisan message about the new tone in Washington.
"I was hoping this could get 60 votes to send a good signal to the American public," said Breaux, who was unclear exactly how many Democrats would stay on board.
The break in the Democrats' centrist coalition came out during a meeting Tuesday morning that two aides described as "confrontational." The session centered on whether to give in on education funding because increasing spending would jeopardize passage in the House, or to use their clout as a group to force Republicans to push for more money for schools.
GOP aides were privately ecstatic because they have effectively diminished the power the centrists' coalition used to force Bush to scale back his tax cut in the first place, they said.
Republicans hoped that political pressure to vote for a tax cut would lure votes from some of the moderate Democrats concerned about education spending, such as Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana.
White House aides said they may include non-binding "sense of the Senate" language in the budget to appease some Democrats, which would signal intent to use any further spending for education.
CNN's Ian Christopher McCaleb, Dana Bash and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.
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