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.
The House passed a nearly identical budget bill on Dec. 19, but the chamber held an unusual revote because Senate Democrats forced technical changes that the House needed to accept before the bill could be sent to Bush's desk.
Republicans said the measure is a necessary first step to reining in the burgeoning growth of so-called mandatory spending programs like Medicare, which threaten to swamp the budget as the baby boom generation starts retiring.
"The Deficit Reduction Act seeks to curb the unsustainable growth rate of mandatory programs that are set to consume 62 percent of our total federal budget in the next decade if left unchecked," said Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla. He said many such programs "are outdated, inefficient and excessively costly."
But Democrats attacked the measure, especially for its cuts to the federal child support enforcement program and for allowing states to reduce Medicaid coverage and charge increased fees for the Medicaid program for the poor and disabled.
Democrats contend the budget cut bill concentrates spending cuts on vulnerable groups like Medicaid beneficiaries while protecting powerful corporate interests such as drug makers and health insurance companies, which won big victories in end-stage negotiations carried on behind closed doors.
Democrats also said the measure, when combined with an upcoming bill cutting taxes by about $70 billion, would lead to an increase in the deficit.
As if on cue, the Senate kicked off debate on a tax cut bill that would revive some expired tax breaks and safeguard millions more families from paying the alternative minimum tax. The House version of that bill would extend tax cuts for capital gains and dividends.
The powerful AARP seniors lobby, student groups, pediatricians and others have mounted a monthlong campaign against the bill, making some lawmakers uncomfortable with their votes in December.
The bill comes as Capitol Hill Republicans are trying to burnish their party's budget-cutting credentials amid increased concern about the rising deficit and the costs of the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina.
Mr. Bush is anxious to sign the bill and move on to next year's budget cycle. On Feb. 6, he is to release his 2007 budget plan, which is likely to call for new cuts to benefits programs like farm subsidies, Medicaid, food stamps and Medicare. Many lawmakers and budget experts are skeptical of the chances for another budget-cut bill during an election year.