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RSC, Leaders Reach Deal

As the Senate slogged through controversial budget amendments, House GOP leaders cut a deal Wednesday with the conservative Republican Study Committee on spending-enforcement rules that should smooth the way for the chamber’s fiscal 2006 budget to pass today.

The House agreement came after several days of wrangling between the leadership and RSC Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.), who was pushing for a change in House rules that would allow lawmakers to raise points of order against spending bills that exceed the caps imposed by the budget resolution.

Under the arrangement agreed to Wednesday afternoon, Members will be allowed to raise a point of order on appropriations bills after floor consideration of amendments. The deal is less than the RSC had originally asked for, but it still represented a notable concession by the leadership, said negotiators on both sides.

“The concerns raised by the leadership, we think, were legitimate and prudent,” said Pence, who called the final result “significant.”

Rather than reopening the House rules for this Congress, Republicans plan to implement the new procedure through an “order of the House,” a rarely used tactic that has the same force as a rule.

Leadership sources said they would use that procedure because reopening the entire rules package would have given Democrats a chance to challenge controversial ethics rules.

The RSC had softened its stance on several fronts before the final agreement was reached.

Originally, the group was asking for a rule allowing points of order on both authorizing and appropriations bills that could be overturned only by a supermajority vote. They settled for points of order, subject to a simple majority vote, that would apply only to appropriations bills. Appropriations conference reports would not be affected.

Republican leaders had complained that the RSC’s original proposal would have led to chaos on the House floor and would have handed power to the minority.

Instead, the final deal “puts a hurdle in place, but it’s not a dilatory tactic and the hurdle can be overcome,” said a senior Republican leadership aide.

Wednesday’s agreement came just hours after a contentious Republican Conference meeting that featured bickering between GOP leaders and RSC members over the budget issue. Pence and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) had a particularly heated exchange, according to Republican sources.

The breakthrough finally came at a midday meeting between Pence, Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

Following that session, Pence won approval from the full RSC at the group’s regular weekly gathering.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, debate on a proposal by Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) to eliminate $14 billion in cuts to Medicaid began last night, but at press time Senate GOP aides predicted that a vote on the proposal would not occur until today.

White House operatives and Senate Republican leaders were scrambling Wednesday to find the votes to defeat the amendment, which would gut President Bush’s desire for Congress to stem the rising cost of entitlement programs.

However, it still appears that Smith has at least 51 votes in favor of his amendment. If it becomes clear that Smith’s amendment will succeed, other Senators may end up switching their votes, giving Smith a much larger victory.

Votes today and Friday are expected before the Senate considers final passage of the budget resolution.

Besides the Medicaid amendment, close votes are expected on a number of other proposals, including: an amendment by Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) that would allow Medicare officials to negotiate lower drug prices; an amendment by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) that would eliminate the budget’s call for $2.8 billion in Agriculture Department cuts; and an amendment by Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) that would eliminate cuts to Community Development Block Grant funds.

Meanwhile, backers of an amendment to establish stringent “pay as you go” budget enforcement mechanisms fell one vote short on Wednesday.

The proposal, which failed on a 50-50 tie vote, would have required that Congress offset any tax cuts and mandatory spending increases. Five Republicans voted with all 44 Democrats and one Democratic-leaning independent.

Similarly, an amendment from Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) to prevent oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge failed on a 49-51 vote.

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