House Approves Tightening Budget Belt

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CBS
The House on Wednesday narrowly approved Congress' first attempt in eight years to slow the growth of benefit programs like Medicaid and student loan subsidies, sending the measure to President Bush.

The bill passed by a vote of 216-214, largely along party lines. Republicans hailed the five-year, $39 billion budget-cutting bill as an important first step to restoring discipline on spending. Democrats attacked the measure as an assault on college students and Medicaid patients and said powerful Washington lobbyists had too much influence on it.

The measure is a leftover item from the GOP fall agenda. Mr. Bush is eager to sign it into law.

It blends modest cuts to Medicaid, Medicare and student loan subsidies with a renewal of the 1996 welfare reform bill and $10 billion in new revenues from auctioning television airwaves to wireless companies. There's also $1 billion in new spending to extend an income subsidy program for dairy farmers and a reprieve for physicians who had faced a 4 percent cut in Medicare fees.

The $39 billion in cuts are generally small — a 0.4 percent cut in Medicaid funding and 0.3 percent cut in Medicare over five years, compared with deficits expected to total $1.3 trillion or more through 2010. Still, the bill set off a brawl between Democrats and Republicans and whipped up opposition from interest groups like AARP.

Also on Wednesday, the House agreed to extend the USA Patriot Act for a month while conservative Republicans and the White House work out changes intended to protect people from government intrusion.

The GOP-controlled House used a voice vote to keep the law in effect until March 10 so negotiators have more time to come up with a deal. The Senate was expected to follow before the law expires on Friday.

Just before leaving for Christmas, Congress extended the law until Feb. 3. Senate Democrats and four libertarian-leaning Republicans had blocked a final vote on a measure negotiated by the White House that would have made permanent most expiring provisions. The Republicans were concerned about excessive police powers.

"It is imperative that we not play political games with the tools that our law enforcement needs to prevent another terrorist attack," said the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.

House Democrats said they did not want the Patriot Act to expire but are pressing for civil rights protections before renewing it permanently. The extension "will give members a chance to work together," said Rep. Robert Scott, D-Va.

Added Rep. Jane Harmon, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee: "We must extend it, mend it, but not end it."

It would be the second time Congress has extended the law. Originally passed five weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Patriot Act was due to expire Dec. 31.

President Bush in his State of the Union speech Tuesday called on Congress to renew the expiring 16 provisions. "The enemy has not lost the desire or capability to attack us. Fortunately, this nation has superb professionals in law enforcement, intelligence, the military and homeland security," Bush said.

The law makes it easier for federal agents to gather and share information in terrorism investigations, install wiretaps and conduct secret searches of households and businesses. At issue are 16 provisions that Congress wanted reviewed and renewed by the end of last year.