Budget Bill Squeaks Through Senate

Vice President Dick Cheney arrives at his office on the Senate side of Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2005. With close votes expected on legislation to cut the deficit and allow oil drilling on a national wildlife refuge in Alaska, Cheney was called back to Washington from his overseas trip.
The Republican-controlled Senate passed legislation to cut federal deficits by $39.7 billion on Wednesday by the narrowest of margins, 51-50, with Vice President Dick Cheney casting the deciding vote.

The measure, the product of a year's labors by the White House and the GOP in Congress, imposes the first restraints in nearly a decade in federal benefit programs such as Medicaid, Medicare and student loans.

"This is the one vote you'll have this year to reduce the rate of growth of the federal government," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, in a final plea for passage.

But Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada countered that the GOP was advancing "an ideologically driven, extreme, radical budget. It caters to lobbyists and an elite group of ultraconservative ideologues here in Washington, all at the expense of middle class Americans," he said.

The roll call delivered less than the final victory Republicans had hoped for.

In maneuvering in advance of the final vote, Democrats succeeded in forcing minor changes.

That requires the House to vote on the bill before it can be sent to President Bush for his signature. Passage is all but certain, but the timing remains in question, since most House members have returned home for the holidays.

Within a few hours, Republicans suffered a sharp setback on a second major conservative priority, legislation to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Supporters of the measure, led by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, failed to overcome a Democratic filibuster. The vote was 56-44, four short of the 60 needed to prevail.

With senators of both parties eager to adjourn for the year, other major bills remained in limbo.

President Bush made a last-minute pitch to rescue the anti-terror Patriot Act from a Democratic-led filibuster. "This obstruction is inexcusable," he said at the White House. "The senators obstructing the Patriot Act need to understand that the expiration of this vital law will endanger America and will leave us in a weaker position in the fight against brutal killers."

Critics of the legislation say it could pass easily, if Republicans would agree to include more protection for the civil liberties of innocent Americans.

Fifty-two senators signed a letter Wednesday signaling support for a three-month extension of the Patriot Act, so negotiations can continue.

The White House opposes the temporary extension.