WASHINGTON – A battle is shaping up between conservatives who want to cut government spending and moderates seeking to protect education and health programs as House Republicans start acting on President Bush's proposed budget for next year.
The conservative-dominated House Budget Committee was expected to act favorably Wednesday on a $2.8 trillion budget blueprint for the budget year that begins Oct. 1.
Moderates already are demanding a rewrite to boost popular domestic programs.
"I will not vote for a House budget resolution that would result in real cuts to critical federal investments in education, health care, housing veterans' services, social and community block grants and encourage my colleagues ... to do the same," Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., told a cheering crowd of health and education advocates on Tuesday.
In a congressional session shortened by election-year politics, Congress probably will not wrap up its appropriations work before adjourning in October. A postelection lame duck session may be required.
The committee chairman, Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, spent Tuesday polishing his budget plan ahead of what was shaping up as a full day of debate.
The plan was expected to adopt Bush's $873 billion proposal for Cabinet department and agency budgets that Congress renews annually.
That total does not include the $90 billion-plus in upcoming money for hurricane aid and the war in Iraq.
Democrats and moderate Republicans say popular domestic programs are being shortchanged. Their spending was cut slightly during last year's budget debate; Bush proposes an additional cut of about 1 percent this round.
The budget resolution is a nonbinding blueprint that establishes lawmakers' tax and spending priorities. It sets the outlines for bills that cut or raise taxes and spending.
With a resolution in place, the 100-member Senate can pass those bills with a simple majority rather than the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
It generally is assumed that Congress will not pass a major new round of tax cuts or push for more budget cuts after having an arduous time passing last year's $39 billion measure that trimmed Medicaid, Medicare and student loan subsidies.
While Nussle's budget plan probably will recommend a modest spending cut bill, senators are not likely to agree.
An amendment by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., to add $7 billion for education, health and job training programs passed by a 73-27 vote, even attracting support from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.
Specter annually writes a huge spending measure for education and health programs and says the $7 billion would restore programs to their levels of two years ago. All told, senators added $16 billion above Bush's spending cap.
White House budget director Joshua Bolten — named Tuesday to succeed Andy Card as Bush's chief of staff next month — said in a statement that the president would seek to eliminate the additional money.
In the House, GOP moderates are emboldened by Specter's success. Twenty-three lawmakers, led by Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., signed a letter urging a 2 percent increase in domestic appropriations and warning that they "would have strong reservations voting for any budget that would result in real cuts in a number of programs."
Conservatives and GOP leaders such as House Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio pledge to stick with Bush's spending cap, which may make it difficult to pass a budget. Even if the House does pass a budget that sticks to the Bush limits, Specter says he will not relent.
"I'm hopeful that the House conservatives can prevail, but I don't know that they have a working majority over there any more than our conservatives over here," said the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H.