Some House Republicans call for paring back proposed Medicaid cuts

A significant group of House Republicans is lobbying Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) to move closer to the Senate plan on potential spending reductions for the Medicaid program.

Rep. Heather Wilson (N.M.) is circulating a letter to Nussle airing her concerns about instructions in the House budget to the Energy and Commerce Committee that call for $20 billion in savings from the entitlement programs under its jurisdiction. The letter identifies Medicaid as a likely source of those savings. Wilson serves on the panel.

About 30 GOP members had signed the letter as of yesterday, according to a Wilson spokesman.

Wilson’s office declined to release the names of the lawmakers. Another source provided a list that was dominated by members from Northeastern states, such as Reps. Peter King (N.Y.), Phil English (Pa.), Chris Smith (N.J.) and Frank Wolf (Va.).

“We strongly urge you to remove these reductions and the reconciliation instructions targeted at Medicaid,” Wilson writes Nussle.

Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) succeeded in attaching language to the Senate budget resolution stripping the measure of $15 billion in Medicaid savings mandated by the version of the bill written by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.).

A Nussle aide declined to comment substantively on the letter, saying it was among “countless” communications from members on the budget. The chairman “takes them into consideration,” the staffer said.

Wilson voted for the budget resolution that narrowly passed the House after an agreement was struck by the leadership with conservatives who sought greater control over spending increases.

Rep. Rob Simmons (Conn.) was among the 12 Republicans who joined a unanimous Democratic minority in opposing the budget. A spokesman said Simmons had signed the Wilson letter, but emphasized it does not represent “a line in the sand.”

While describing the letter as “strongly worded,” the Simmons aide said, “It’s not like we’re going to vote against the budget” solely based on Medicaid.

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) supported the budget language, an aide emphasized. Barton believes that substantial savings can be found in Medicaid, but the aide maintained the program would not be the only target. In addition, Barton expects to generate new revenue by collecting spectrum fees from digital television broadcasters.

Wilson’s resistance on Medicaid is not the first instance of her disagreeing with the chairman. Barton unsuccessfully sought to remove Wilson from the committee after she sided with Democrats on a vote to compel the Bush administration to turn over its cost estimates for the Medicare drug benefit to Congress. Wilson also voted against a change in the House rules that would have protected the position of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) if he were indicted.

Smith and his GOP allies in the Senate had planned a letter of their own but retreated after securing a meeting with Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). Republican Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) also attended what a Smith spokesman deemed a “cordial meeting” last Wednesday.

Like their House counterparts, Smith and his colleagues are stopping short of issuing demands, despite having achieved a majority of support for the Medicaid amendment to the budget.

“Senator Smith understands that we’d like to have a budget,” his spokesman said. Indicating that Smith is not resigned to large reductions in Medicaid, the aide stressed, “The policy comes first.”

Smith and Wilson are the lead sponsors of a bill to create a panel to study Medicaid reform for one year, the Bipartisan Medicaid Commission Act of 2005 (H.R. 985, S. 338). The House bill had 152 co-sponsors and the Senate bill had 33 as of yesterday. Wilson’s letter requests $1.5 million to finance the commission’s work.

So far, the governors have eschewed any coordinated lobbying effort as Nussle and Gregg work on finalizing the budget, a National Governors Association spokeswoman said.

Instead, a task force led by Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) and Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R) is developing a consensus plan for comprehensive Medicaid reform. The group expects to have a draft to circulate to the governors in the next few weeks, the spokeswoman said.

Gregg has not given up on reaching an agreement by the statutory deadline of April 15 but meeting that requirement is rare, an aide said.

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