WASHINGTON – No sooner did a $39 billion budget-cut bill come to the Senate floor on Tuesday than GOP leaders moved to spend almost $7 billion of the savings on other purposes such as combating bird flu.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is a top sponsor of the $4 billion avian flu plan, which would direct $2.8 billion to developing medicines and vaccines to combat the flu. An additional $1.2 billion would be earmarked to otherwise prepare for a potential pandemic.
The money is available because congressional budget scorekeepers credited the overall bill as producing more savings than originally anticipated. The move by Frist and Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., is also aimed at freezing out Democrats who might seek to claim the extra money for other purposes such as hurricane relief.
Still, the proposal to fight avian flu demonstrates the pressure for additional federal spending, even as the budget cut bill is debated. And the contents of the core bill also shows the continued appetite for spending — it blends $32 billion in new spending with $71 billion in spending cuts over five years.
Not to be outdone, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., moved in with a $2.7 billion plan to lower student loan processing fees, and to provide aid to students and schools in the hurricane zone. Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts joined Enzi in offering the plan.
"It's been two months since this unprecedented disaster struck, and the federal government has still provided no assistance to these schools, these communities or these children," Kennedy said.
Neither amendment is likely to be voted on until Thursday at the earliest, said a Democratic floor aide, and both would require 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to overcome procedural hurdles.
Debate was interrupted when Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., forced the Senate into a secret session, drawing attention to what he called their failure to investigate the questionable intelligence that President Bush used in the run-up to the war in Iraq.
Gregg acknowledged it seemed ironic for conservative Republicans to promote more spending, but he said it was a tactical move to take extra savings off the table so that Democrats wouldn't grab them.
"We felt it was better to identify places ... where we knew we were going to have to spend it anyway. We know we're going to have to spend the money on the avian flu," Gregg said.
The Senate debate seems to take a relatively predictable course since most of the chamber's GOP moderates — who typically provide the swing votes — are likely to support the bill since they've succeeded in limiting its impact on programs aimed at the poor.
For their part, Senate conservatives uncomfortable with the new prescription drug benefit, which takes effect Jan. 1, are expected to try to delay its implementation. They are unlikely to prevail, however.
Unlike virtually all other bills that come to the Senate floor, the budget measure is protected by special rules against filibusters.
Unlike a very controversial companion House bill, the Senate plan leaves food stamps alone and largely won't touch beneficiaries of the Medicaid and Medicare programs, instead tapping drug companies, pharmacies and insurance subsidies for much of the savings.
In the House, GOP leaders face a bevy of problems and politically nettlesome decisions as they point to a floor vote next week. Several GOP factions are emerging in opposition to the bill. Moderates are opposed to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and a variety of cuts to social programs such as food stamps, Medicaid and child support enforcement.
"We're essentially at a critical mass with the Republican moderates," said Brian Moore, a lobbyist for the Alaska Wilderness League. "When you combine as many members who are opposed to drilling in the Arctic refuge with all the other things they've included in this budget, they have a real hard time getting it through the floor."
Rust Belt lawmakers, led by Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, are opposing a bid to cut off funding for a program that directs duties recovered from trading partners who "dump" their exports to U.S. producers most harmed by such unfair trade practices.