WASHINGTON – Outside interest groups are trying to pressure moderate Republicans in competitive swing districts to defeat a $39.7 billion budget cut package that is up for a second final vote during the week Congress returns.
But many of those members say they are quite satisfied with the legislation before them, and Republicans add they aren't concerned that the monumental "deficit reduction" bill could be ill-fated under political pressures.
"I'm not going to predict anything, but we've had a very successful operation in getting our agenda passed and we're confident we'll be successful a second time around," said Sean Spicer, spokesman for the House Republican Caucus.
On Dec. 19, the House passed on a partisan 212-206 vote – with 16 not voting – on the conference report for the 2006 Budget Reconciliation bill. Two days later, the Senate approved the measure 51 to 50, with Vice President Dick Cheney forced to return early from an overseas trip to break the tie. Because the Senate made some slight procedural changes to the legislation, the bill must go back to the House for a final vote when the body returns from winter break.
House Democrats, who all voted together against the bill, prevented a final vote before Christmas to give groups the opportunity to pressure moderate Republicans who supported the measure to change their minds. Democrats say they are trying to convince these moderates that it would be politically beneficial to be seen voting against budget cuts they say hurt the poor, elderly, college students and children — particularly in an election year.
"These cuts are immoral and mean-spirited," said Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., who was one of the Democrats who missed the Dec. 19 vote, but plans on casting a "nay" on Feb. 1, when the second tally is expected. "What happened to 'family values?'"
Democrats like Baca say the $39.7 billion in cuts are unfair. They point to specific provisions affecting Medicare, Medicaid, student loans, welfare-to-work and child welfare spending.
"It's not building towards the future or helping our families," said Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., who said that the bill neither reduces the expected $400 billion deficit for 2006 nor protects "everyday families."
National groups like AARP and the Campaign for America's Future, a coalition of liberal political advocacy groups and unions, say they have been actively targeting the Republican swing districts, and will continue for the next few weeks, with phone calls, town hall meetings and advertising.
"They're calling this a technical vote," said Toby Chaudhuri, spokesman for the Campaign for America's Future, referring to the Feb. 1 vote. "We call it another chance for members of Congress to take a stand in support of their constituents' needs and America's priorities … or be on record against them."
The AARP is trying to convince reticent lawmakers that the bill bypassed opportunities to force the pharmaceutical and managed care industries to shoulder some of the budget cuts and instead placed the brunt on patients.
"It's a bad policy," said David Certner, spokesman for the AARP. "Very few people know what they did and what it means. We're going to be out doing activities in these districts, trying to convince people this needs to be changed."
But moderate Republicans and their staff reached over the recess say they are proud of the work they did to reduce the impact of budget cuts on the poor and elderly, and say the final bill balances their constituents' needs with necessary fiscal responsibility in the face of the largest federal deficits in the nation's history.
"I think many of my constituents are very concerned about the significant growth in federal spending, and want to see us slow its growth," said Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., a moderate from a competitive district in a Democratic "blue" state. He said he voted against an earlier version of the House bill "because of significant concerns I had," but negotiations in the House-Senate committee dropped cuts to food stamps and "harmful provisions to the environment," and won him over.
"Basically, the very people they are protesting had got the cuts scaled back to where they are," said Ron Talley, spokesman for the Republican Main Street Partnership, a coalition of GOP moderates. "We cut as good a deal as we could have cut and much more than anyone was willing to give us credit for early on."
As for the protests from outside groups on the Main Street members, Talley said, "I don't think anyone is feeling that pressure."
Dan Gage, spokesman for Rep. James Walsh, R-NY., another moderate, said his boss has been talking to constituents over the break about the budget, explaining to them how he worked to get some of what he felt were the most hurtful cuts out of the legislation.
"We hear from groups asking us to reconsider, yeah," said Gage. "I think when people have a full picture, a better picture … they realize our goal is not to hurt people, but to control spending."
Of the 16 members who did not vote Dec. 16, 10 were Republicans, and only one is a member of the Main Street moderates — Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz. His office did not return an inquiry into how he planned to vote in February, but he is retiring, and therefore, not facing a re-election challenge in November. The other Republicans who could be reached over the break said they would be voting in favor of the budget reconciliation bill.
On the other hand, the House Democratic Caucus said it is confident that all Democrats, including the six who did not vote last time, will be unified in voting against the measure, and do not foresee any defections. The House is made up of 231 Republicans, 201 Democrats and one independent. The body also has two vacancies, one from each party.
Over five years, the budget reconciliation bill would reduce Medicare spending $6.4 billion and Medicaid spending by $4.8 billion. Supporters say the savings is a tiny slice out of the billions these programs spend, and most of the savings is coming out of a slowing of the growth year-over-year rather than outright cuts to existing appropriations.
"If you want to characterize them in a word that is very popular this week, [the budget cuts] are very mainstream," said Mike Franc, vice president of government affairs for the Heritage Foundation. "There is nothing radical about these cuts."
Tad Furtado, spokesman for Rep. Charlie Bass, R-N.H., another Main Street member, said it is not likely GOP lawmakers will migrate against the bill.
"Yeah, we've been pressured by advocacy groups," said Furtado. "My boss has no intention of changing his position. He absolutely supports the deficit reduction act."