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Gregg Grabs Budget Gavel

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) confirmed today that he will step down as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in order to take the reins of the Budget Committee.

This year’s retirement of current Budget Chairman Don Nickles (R-Okla.) puts Gregg in line for that panel’s top spot in the 109th Congress, which begins in January. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) will likely ascend to the HELP chairmanship.

Gregg said he decided to make the switch because, outside of terrorism, the most pressing issue for the nation is how keep the federal Treasury flush as the baby boomers’ retirement threatens to bankrupt both the Social Security and Medicare systems in the next 30 to 50 years.

Given President Bush’s desire to enact Social Security reform in the 109th Congress, Gregg’s panel will likely be one of the administration’s first stops next year as it makes sure there is enough money in the budget to deal with the controversial privatization plan.

Gregg also committed Wednesday to helping Bush cut the federal deficit in half in the next five years, but did not unveil a specific plan for how to accomplish such a feat given the growing costs of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as domestic homeland security needs.

Gregg said he would pursue “very strong enforcement measures” to make sure deficits do not rise, but he would not explicitly endorse reimplementing strict pay-as-you-go rules backed by four Senate GOP moderates. Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine), Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), John McCain (Ariz.) and Susan Collins (Maine) insisted on reinstating PAYGO rules during this year’s budget negotiations, and the impasse between the moderates and GOP leaders prevented enactment of a budget.

As he leaves HELP, Gregg leaves Enzi with a laundry list of unfinished business and controversial issues.

On the prickly issue of health care, Gregg was confounded in his attempts to give the Food and Drug Administration regulatory control of tobacco products, pass a Patient Safety Act and find consensus on allowing the reimportation of drugs from nations like Canada.

Even moderates like Snowe rejected Gregg’s drug reimportation bill as not sufficient. But Gregg said today that he still intends “to be a player on that issue” when it comes up in the 109th. Of course, given the House and Senate GOP leaderships’ general opposition to reimportation legislation and their expanded majorities, the issue could be dead on arrival next year.

On education issues, Gregg was unable to complete action on needed reauthorizations of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, the Higher Education Act and Head Start programs, to name a few. However, he expressed hope that a conference report on the IDEA reauthorization could be passed during next week’s lame-duck session.

Gregg also grappled unsuccessfully with pension reform measures, an issue in which he said Enzi has a specialty.

On the other hand, Gregg cited President Bush’s signature education bill, the No Child Left Behind Act, as his greatest accomplishment during his time at HELP.

But at the time of the bill’s passage, Gregg wasn’t even the senior Republican on the committee. He did not become the top HELP Republican until June 2001, when then-Chairman Jim Jeffords (Vt.) decided to abandon the Republican Party to become an Independent aligned with Democrats. Gregg did not become chairman of the panel until Republicans retook control of the Senate in 2003.

However, Bush’s reliance on Gregg, rather than Jeffords, as point man on the Senate’s consideration of the No Child Left Behind Act has been cited as one of the reasons Jeffords left the party.

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