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Lines Sharpen in Budget Clash

GOP Moderates Oppose Cuts

House Republicans attempted Tuesday to shore up flagging support for their proposed budget amendment as Democrats readied for a massive public relations battle against the GOP’s entire reconciliation plan.

House Democrats are digging in to make the proposed GOP budget cuts their next major rallying point. Emboldened by their success in fighting the administration’s Social Security overhaul plan, they are urging their Members to make the cuts policy priority No. 1 with voters from now to the end of the year.

The first major step in that budget fight was supposed to be a vote, which was postponed once already last week, to amend the fiscal 2006 spending blueprint to make room for more cuts. But as of Tuesday, Republican leaders did not have the 218 votes necessary to pass a budget amendment given that Democrats are expected be united in their opposition to it.

While GOP leaders refused to rule out the possibility that the House could still vote on an amendment this week, their rhetoric has shifted to the point that they are now openly acknowledging the possibility that they will skip the amendment step and instead proceed directly to a $50 billion package of specific mandatory cuts.

“Amendment or no amendment, we’re going to do” reconciliation, said Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio).

Several House committees are already in the process of crafting their share of the mandatory cuts, and by next week there might be no point in passing a new spending blueprint outlining what chairmen should do if they’re already doing it.

“The question is, is there any utility in doing this beyond the point when the chairmen begin reporting out their numbers?” said a GOP leadership aide.

While some panel chairmen have grumbled about the cuts they have to make, Republican vote-counters’ real problem on the budget amendment has been with the party’s moderates, who have been uncharacteristically united in their opposition to the amendment plan.

“They’re being tough this time,” said the leadership aide.

Included in the GOP’s moderate wing are many of the party’s most vulnerable Members — the likeliest targets for the Democrats’ coming message blitz.

Democratic leaders on Tuesday instructed Members to hold at least one event in their districts before the Thanksgiving holiday on how the budget cuts could affect their constituents. The leaders are also encouraging their Caucus to meet with local editorial boards and media outlets in their own districts and those of vulnerable Republican Members.

One Democratic leadership aide said that, politically speaking, the budget issue is the “gift that keeps on giving,” because it affects so many needy Americans.

“The cuts hit every program, so there is an endless supply of ammunition to use against Republicans,” said the staffer. “And they very neatly illustrate Republicans’ misplaced priorities and fiscal mismanagement — messages that work in every kind of district in the country.”

The Democratic leadership, along with outside organizations, began its push to kill the budget cuts last week with a series of events in Washington, D.C., and across the country. This week, party leaders are ramping up their efforts with several additional press conferences, including one led Tuesday by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) on how the cuts would affect victims of Hurricane Katrina and another today in which Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) will argue that the proposed reductions would hurt defense programs. The two top Democrats will also join other leaders today in a broader message event on the topic following the regular Caucus meeting.

Democrats hope to replicate their success earlier this year in defeating President Bush’s proposed Social Security reform plans. The minority party and its interest-group allies held hundreds of town hall-style events and tailored their constituency work around the argument that the GOP was trying to privatize the entitlement program.

“Collectively, the folks involved in Social Security thought we had some momentum, and thought we had a chance to shape the outcome of this [budget] debate,” said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for Emergency Campaign for America’s Priorities, an organization assembled to defeat the budget cuts that grew out of the group Americans United to Protect Social Security. “Fundamentally, this reconciliation debate is about what direction the country should go in and what its priorities are.”

Brendan Daly, spokesman for Pelosi, argued it makes sense for Democrats to invest their energy in defeating the budget proposal, saying: “It epitomizes the differences between the two parties.”

“This demonstrates very clearly the different priorities of the two parties,” Daly said. “Their focus is on tax breaks for the wealthy while Democrats are there to fight for people who need our help and expect their government to be there for them.”

To push back against Democratic attacks, Republicans have been highlighting the argument that the minority has no cohesive budget plan of its own.

The GOP Conference’s Theme Team sent out a release Tuesday saying, “House Republicans are committed to fiscal responsibility while the Democrats are convinced that the only solution is to ‘tax-and-spend’ and increase the size of government. … Democrats in Congress have tried to increase federal spending by tens of billions of dollars at every stage of the legislative process.”

With the battle lines set, the only question this week is whether the two parties will begin their fight on a budget amendment or on an actual package of reconciliation cuts. In a session with reporters Tuesday, Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) emphasized that the actual cuts meant more in the long run than a budget amendment would.

“There probably is a reason that the budget hasn’t been amended but once in its entire history, and that reason is the work … takes energy that, at the end of the day, is not nearly as important as the energy you would spend to get the votes on the [reconciliation] bills themselves,” Blunt said.