WASHINGTON – House Republican leaders on Thursday eased their planned cuts to health and nutrition programs for the poor, seeking votes from reluctant moderates for a contentious $50 billion budget-cutting bill.
Even with the modest changes, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., wouldn't guarantee that the budget plan would come to a vote later in the day.
"We'll see," said Hastert, who has spent the past two weeks cajoling rank and file Republicans to support a bill that Democrats are expected to unanimously oppose.
The latest concession to moderates involved leaving alone copayments for the poorest Medicaid beneficiaries and dropping a provision that would have denied free school lunches to about 40,000 children whose parents would lose their food stamps.
A provision denying Medicaid nursing home benefits to people with home equity of $500,000 would be modified by raising the cap to $750,000.
Those changes came on top of concessions made last week. Then, GOP leaders dropped plans to open an Alaskan wildlife refuge to oil drilling and to allow states to lift a moratorium on oil drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
The maneuvering came as House Republicans worked on two tracks to curb federal spending. Besides the five year, $50 billion deficit-reduction bill curbing spending on Medicaid, food stamps and student loan subsidies, another vote loomed on a bill cutting money below last year's levels for the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services.
The deficit reduction bill would trim about $50 billion over five years from programs like Medicaid whose budgets increase automatically every year. The proposed savings are modest considering the $14 trillion the government is set to spend during the five-year period.
Still, the budget bill has run into fierce resistance from Republicans unhappy with limiting eligibility for food stamps, curbing student loan subsidies and requiring Medicaid beneficiaries to pay for a fraction of their health care.
Hastert has been working hard to salvage the budget planning, hoping to avoid a repeat of last week's embarrassing setback, when GOP leaders were forced to scrap plans for a vote after a revolt by moderates.
"There is no question we are having a difficult time rounding up the votes," said GOP Rep. Jim Nussle of Iowa, chairman of the House Budget Committee.
As Nussle and other GOP leaders have struggled to find the final mix of spending cuts for the deficit-reduction plan, the chamber's powerful appropriators have made steady progress in their goal of passing 11 separate spending bills for the budget year that began Oct. 1.
Though they've blown the Oct. 1 deadline, as is the case most years, the appropriators have managed to avoid producing another embarrassing, hastily assembled omnibus bill, a win for freshman Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif.
And Lewis has defied convention by winning passage of bills that, taken as a whole, freeze the budgets for most domestic agencies except the Homeland Security Department.
Still, stopgap funds will be needed to keep many agencies running past a Friday deadline.
And while all of the domestic spending bills should be cleared before Thanksgiving, the defense spending bill is on hold until next month, to the embarrassment of GOP leaders.
The Pentagon worries that further delays in defense spending boosts could harm some operations.
The vote on the labor, health and education bill won't be easy, especially since about $1 billion worth of lawmakers' cherished hometown projects and grants — commonly called "earmarks" — were dropped from the bill to avoid more severe budgets for heating subsidies, the Centers for Disease Control and the Head Start preschool education program, among others.
"Had the $1 billion been spent on earmarks, we would have sustained intolerable cuts," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., lead Senate negotiator on the spending bill.
The separate budget cut plan is the first effort in eight years to take on the automatic growth of mandatory programs like Medicaid, which make up about 55 percent of the budget. By comparison, the annual appropriations bills fund about one-third of the budget.