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Frist Tries to Woo GOP Moderates

In a bid to move the long-stalled 2005 budget resolution, Senate Republican leaders plan to offer four moderate Republican holdouts a chance to make lasting changes to budget-enforcement and spending-restraint rules if they commit to voting for the budget plan.

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is also hoping that this week’s recess will help cool tempers that had flared between conservative House Republican leaders and the four moderates — Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). The moderates have steadfastly broken ranks with their party, refusing to support a one-year budget deal.

Though the House passed a budget conference report last Wednesday, the Senate left town Friday having failed to secure the 51 votes needed to pass the budget deal.

The four moderates, along with Democratic moderate Ben Nelson (Neb.), have been insisting on a budget that applies strict “pay-as-you-go” budget rules to both tax cuts and additional mandatory spending spread over multiple years, with few, if any, exemptions.

But all five deemed unacceptable the budget deal that was unveiled last week. The agreement would only institute PAYGO for one year; would exempt three popular tax cuts; and would protect those tax cuts from a filibuster.

In a bid to get the moderates to change their minds, Frist will likely offer to schedule a Senate floor debate on tightening budget-enforcement rules in the Budget Act and possibly Senate procedural rules as well, a senior Senate GOP leadership aide said.

“We’re talking about more substantive changes to the Budget Act that would have longer-lasting effects than a budget resolution,” said the aide.

The aide declined to give details on what specific changes Frist was contemplating, saying, “We are having serious discussions, and I want to keep that kind of open as we go through [the] week.” The aide did note that the proposed changes would likely make it harder for both spending increases and tax cuts to pass the Senate unless they are offset.

The House already has a separate bill to toughen budget enforcement by setting discretionary spending caps through 2009 and instituting PAYGO on any new mandatory spending, but not on new tax-cut proposals.

When House GOP moderates threatened to oppose their chamber’s budget in March because it lacked strict spending restraints, the House Budget Committee passed the measure that toughened budget enforcement. But it is unclear when and if it will come up for a vote on the House floor.

An aide to McCain said that the Arizona Senator had not yet been approached by Senate GOP leaders about the new proposed deal. But the aide predicted that McCain would be unlikely to support the one-year budget conference report under any scenario.

“He’s not going to vote for a bad budget just for a promise of debate on budget reform,” the McCain staffer said.

However, the aide noted that McCain would welcome any Senate floor debate on rules changes for budget enforcement.

For example, McCain has been pressing a resolution for years that would allow Senators to use a procedural maneuver to strip out unauthorized earmarks and other spending from appropriations conference reports. Under McCain’s proposal, 60 votes would be required to save the earmark or spending program from elimination.

Currently, conference reports cannot be amended in either chamber.

McCain also supports amending the Budget Act to create a biennial budget process. Rather than passing a new budget resolution each year, as is currently done, Congress would set the federal budget for two years at the start of each Congressional session.

A Collins spokeswoman said the Senator could not be reached on Friday, and a Snowe aide declined to comment. Chafee’s office did not return a phone call.

Meanwhile, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (R-Va.) indicated Thursday that Frist may also seek to make legislative “trades” with both Republican and Democratic moderates in an attempt to get the 51 votes he needs for passage of the budget resolution.

It is not unusual for Members to “trade” votes in exchange for leadership agreements to support or allow debate on matters important to them. But some lawmakers shun it.

Even with those options available to him, Frist faces a tough road this week as he attempts to ease the strains caused by House GOP leaders last week.

Comments such as those by House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) questioning McCain’s commitment to the GOP only caused moderates to stiffen their resolve against the budget conference, several aides said.

For example, the McCain staffer noted that a House aide’s quote in National Journal’s CongressDailyAM — that GOP moderates are “easy to buy” — only strengthened McCain’s stance. “That shored up his opposition more than anything,” the McCain staffer said.

Indeed, the controversy ignited by House GOP criticism of Senate Republican moderates was one of the main reasons Frist abandoned plans to vote on the budget last week, said the senior Senate GOP leadership aide. “Given some of the comments that had been made the previous day about some of our Senators, we were not going to be able to turn any votes around” Thursday, the aide said.

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