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Budget Vote a Nail-Biter

After a week of closed-door negotiations and strategy sessions, House Republican leaders were on the verge of completing a deal Wednesday night that they hoped would attract the votes of enough moderate lawmakers to allow passage of a budget resolution today.

The manager’s amendment to the fiscal 2004 spending blueprint would essentially “wall off” Medicare, restoring a series of proposed cuts in the program that had sparked controversy. The plan would call for a balanced budget in nine years instead of the original seven while leaving room for President Bush’s entire $726 billion tax-cut proposal.

But while the deal has been designed to assuage enough moderate Republicans who had expressed concerns about the Medicare cuts to ensure 218 ‘aye’ votes, several moderate Republicans said Wednesday that the compromise would not be enough to win their support.

“I don’t think it gets you enough votes,” said a centrist Republican who still plans to oppose the resolution. “There’s still things to be done.”

Another moderate lawmaker used similar language, saying “there’ s still more work to be done on Medicaid and veterans” issues before he would give his support.

A spokesman for Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), a leading member of the middle-of-the-road Tuesday Group, said the amendment would not be sufficient to change his vote.

Some Members cautioned that dissatisfaction with the budget’s proposed spending cuts went beyond the moderates and deeper into the Republican Conference. Sources said those frustrations were vented Tuesday during Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) regular meeting with committee chairmen, during which several of them complained openly about proposed cuts in their policy areas.

“I don’ t think they’re out of the woods yet,” a senior GOP lawmaker who is not aligned with the moderate faction said of the proposed amendment.

Republican leadership aides acknowledged that the vote could well be a nail-biter, as it is most years, but also expressed confidence that the manager’s amendment would do the trick.

“We’ll have the votes,” said a leadership aide.

The eight-hour budget debate is scheduled to start today, though a final vote could be pushed into Friday if war starts and the House pauses to express support for U.S. troops. The extra day before a vote could help the leadership garner additional support if the Medicare change doesn’t appear to be enough.

Last Friday, 11 moderate Republicans sent a letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) complaining about the budget’ s proposed spending cuts, saying “We cannot support it in its current form.”

At least a half dozen more moderates who didn’t sign the letter have also let it be known that they won’t support the plan that was passed by the Budget Committee last week. “My level of concern is very high with a number of specifics with regard to the funding side,” said Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), one opponent who didn’t sign the letter.

Beyond a meeting between the moderates and the leadership last week, real courtship of most of the budget skeptics has not yet begun, though aides said they expect negotiations to begin in earnest today.

“The leadership is now trying to determine how many of the moderates they can get back in the ‘yes’ column with the least alterations as possible,” said an aide to a prominent Republican moderate.

The aide said that, for negotiating purposes, it made sense that the leadership was still declaring Bush’ s tax cut essentially off the table.

“From their standpoint, that’s the last thing they’re going to want to deal with,” said the moderate aide. “But they’ll do it if they don’t have the votes.”

A large group of moderates met with Hastert and Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) in the Speaker’s office last week for what a participant called a “frank and open discussion” of the lawmakers’ budget concerns.

Since then, what contact there has been between leaders and moderates has been on a one-on-one basis rather than in large meetings. Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.), for instance, said that Blunt called him Monday to ask if they could meet to discuss his particular concerns.

But many moderates, including several who signed Friday’s letter, said they had not heard a word from the leadership about the budget and not been approached about their demands.

Aides said leaders believe picking off individual dissenters will be more effective than negotiating with the whole group. “It’s not like they were unified in their concerns,” a leadership aide said.

One moderate who has played a key role in helping leaders gather support for the bill is Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), the vice chairman of the Budget Committee.

Shays has been attending leadership meetings along with Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) and has also joined in Whip meetings.

His work for the budget has drawn notice because, in recent years, Shays’ relationship with Republican leaders has been marked by a series of highs and lows.

He earned the animus of the leadership — and much of the Republican Conference — for his high-profile stewardship of campaign finance reform through the House, an effort that put him more often on the side of Democrats than his fellow Republicans.

And while passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act is gradually beginning to fade from memory, the subject still raises tempers on occasion.

During a meeting at the Republican retreat last month, Shays got into a heated argument with a group of GOP election lawyers who were there to explain the implications of BCRA. He complained that they were exaggerating the effects of the measure, while some Republicans grumbled that Shays didn’t understand his own bill.

Yet even as some bitterness remains over the campaign finance debate, Shays has earned good marks from the leadership for his efforts on other issues.

When the Government Reform Committee was working on legislation to create the Department of Homeland Security, Shays’ did yeoman’s work, sponsoring the amendment pushed by Republican leaders that would relax civil service rules at the new department.

That and other actions even led some conservative Republicans to favor handing the Government Reform gavel to Shays over another moderate, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), whom some in the Conference feared would be too solicitous of unions.

Though Davis ended up winning the chairmanship, Shays got the Budget vice chair slot as a consolation prize.

Even though the Connecticut lawmaker has sometimes clashed with leaders on fiscal matters, top Republicans said that Shays has always been respected by conservative leaders for being a consistent deficit hawk. And they said he had a unique ability to counter the party line on one matter and toe it on another.

“Shays is good at compartmentalization,” said a House GOP leadership aide. “He can take one issue and fight like hell on it and then thirty minutes later be on a different issue.”

As an example, the aide pointed to the Republican retreat, where within hours after the heated meeting on campaign finance, Shays was at another gathering calmly voicing support for the leadership’ s budget priorities.The House is poised Wednesday to pass a military tax-relief bill that was pulled from the floor earlier this month after it was overloaded with special-interest provisions.

Sensing revolt, House leaders pulled the bill March 6 and have since retooled it. What came to the floor Tuesday was a “clean” bill that gives military personnel $835 million in tax relief over 10 years — and nothing else.

“I congratulate the Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) for taking the bulbs, baubles and whistles off of the Christmas tree that they stacked on this bill initially,” said Rep. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.), the committee’s top Democrat, said in a statement.

“And I am glad to see that we are bringing a clean bill to the floor and that it is not bogged down with fish tackle boxes, and foreign betters on horse races,” Rangel added on the floor, referring to the questionable provisions that initially threatened to sink the bill.

The House is expected to pass the measure tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the unrelated tax measures — minus the most controversial, such as the provision that would have exempted foreigners betting on U.S. horse races from paying taxes on their winnings — were tacked onto a bill that included tax breaks for the families of the fallen Columbia astronauts.

Thomas stressed the bill, which passed by voice vote, only included provisions that either passed the House previously or were adopted by voice vote in committee.

For example, the bill would repeal the 10 percent excise tax on fishing tackle boxes because similar boxes are not subject to the tax.

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