WASHINGTON – Legislation to fund many of the nation's health, education and social programs went down to a startling defeat in the House Thursday, led by Democrats who said cuts in the bill hurt some of America's neediest people.
The 224-209 vote against the $142.5 billion spending bill disrupted plans by Republican leaders to finish up work on this year's spending bills and cast doubt on whether they would have the votes to pass a major budget-cutting bill also on the day's agenda.
Democrats, unanimous in opposing the legislation, said it included the first cut in education funding in a decade and slashed spending for several health care programs. "It betrays our nation's values and its future," said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland. "It is neither compassionate, conservative nor wise."
Republicans said they may have lost votes because this year's bill, down $1.5 billion from last year, included no special projects or earmarks for lawmakers.
"You take those out and you lose the incentive," said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who voted for the bill.
Twenty-two Republicans voted against the measure, many of them moderates who also are swing votes on the budget-cutting legislation.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said one factor in the bill's defeat was the drop in the president's popularity and his inability to maintain unity among the GOP ranks. He also noted that the Republican Party misses the vote-gathering powers of Texas Rep. Tom DeLay — nicknamed "The Hammer" — who has stepped aside as majority leader because of legal problems, replaced by Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. "Not every blunt instrument is a hammer," Frank said.
The defeat upset Republican plans to finish up nearly all the spending bills before leaving for the Thanksgiving recess. Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, manager of the bill, said it may now get thrown into a year-end "omnibus" over which members have little control.
The bill, a compromise with the Senate covering labor, health and education programs, is one of the biggest of the 11 spending measures Congress must pass every year and generally one of the more difficult.
It includes $63.4 billion for Health and Human Services programs, down almost $1 billion from fiscal 2005; $56.5 billion for the Department of Education, down slightly from a year before; and $11.6 billion for the Labor Department, down $430 million.
Republicans argued that it was the best they could do in a year of tight budgets. Rep. Jim Walsh, R-N.Y., said the bill represented more spending than the entire budgets of Russia or China. "It's a pretty remarkable commitment to our nation and to our citizens," he said.
Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., said the budget for the National Institutes of Health, up $250 million from last year to $28.6 billion, has doubled since Republicans took over control of Congress.
But Democrats provided a long list of programs that will be cut or face little or no increase, including President Bush's landmark No Child Left Behind education program, rural health care, Pell grants for higher education and heating assistance for low-income families. They insisted the attempted budget cuts were the result of GOP-driven tax cuts.
The vote was "a tremendous defeat" for the Republicans, said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "It had the wrong priorities."