WASHINGTON – Republicans muscled a compromise $2.4 trillion budget for 2005 (search) through the House on Wednesday, but struggled in their quest for enough votes to push it through the closely divided Senate later this week.
The House approved the measure by a near party-line 216-213, with GOP leaders hoping moderate Republican senators angry over the plan's weak tax-cut limits would feel pressured to support it. But there was no sign the moderates would comply, and a Senate defeat loomed as a real possibility.
A failure of the GOP-run Congress to complete a budget would be a significant election-year embarrassment for the party and make it harder for them to cut taxes and raise the government's borrowing limit later this year.
"This is the best I could come up with," Senate Budget Committee Chairman Don Nickles (search), R-Okla., said of his bargaining with House budget writers. "I tried. People are going to have to decide whether they want this or nothing."
The measure, a guide for future tax and spending bills, is less ambitious than budgets President Bush proposed and earlier House and Senate versions. To minimize disputes, Republicans limited its proposed tax and spending proposals to one year instead of the usual five or 10, leaving it without long-range plans for tasks such as tackling deficits, creating jobs or strengthening the military.
The budget would pave the way for tax cuts far more modest than what Bush proposed. Next year's deficit would be $367 billion — just below last year's $375 billion record, and $4 billion more than what forecasters expect without the budget's proposed policies.
The budget also would bestow big boosts on defense and anti-terrorism programs, with only slightly more for other domestic programs.
House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle (search), R-Iowa, said the budget "is what's doable at this time of extreme circumstances in our nation's history."
"We need to deal with the deficit now," countered Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., "and this budget resolution doesn't do it."
Even as Senate GOP leaders hunted for votes from Republicans and Democrats alike, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, became the latest moderate to say she planned to vote no.
"The budget that is expected to be brought before the U.S. Senate this week does not meet my concerns" about rising deficits, she said.
She and three other moderate GOP senators — plus moderate Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. — were among those targeted by Republican leaders, with the GOP needing two more votes for passage. All five have said they will vote no, and after a two-month internal GOP fight over the issue, the frustration of top Republicans was on display.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., told reporters his chamber has had to "bow and scrape" to the Senate but would no longer wait for moderates to come aboard. When asked about one of them — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. — he pointedly said, "Who? Where's he from? A Republican?"
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said he "can't believe" that fellow Republicans "would hold up such an incredible budget. For what, to make it more difficult for us to give tax relief to the American people."
In March, Democrats and moderate Republicans forced into the Senate's budget a requirement that tax cuts and expanded benefits be paid for with either spending cuts or tax increases for five years. Sixty of the 100 senators could vote to waive the rule.
The House budget had no such restrictions, which are also opposed by Bush as an obstacle to his tax-cutting agenda.
The compromise budget would impose the constraints for just one year, and exempt the one tax bill Congress is expected to pass this year. That would be a $27.5 billion, one-year measure keeping the lowest 10 percent tax bracket, the $1,000 per child tax credit and breaks for two-income married couples from getting smaller, as scheduled under current law.
Bush proposed nearly $1.3 trillion in tax cuts over the next decade, mostly to make recent tax reductions permanent.
Bush also proposed halving this year's huge deficit — expected to exceed $400 billion — in five years. The congressional plan achieves that goal, but partly because its tax cuts would last only for one year.
The budget also:
— Meets Bush's request of $421 billion for defense, 7 percent over this year. There is another $50 billion for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, of which Bush has so far requested half;
— Increases domestic security by 15 percent to $31 billion, while holding remaining domestic programs to $369 billion, $2 billion over this year.
— Drops earlier House plans to pare $13 billion in savings from benefit programs like Medicaid over the next five years.
— Means that, upon completion by both chambers, the House is considered to have approved a needed $690 billion increase in the federal debt limit to $8.1 trillion. The Senate must conduct a separate vote.