Blunt wins budget vote, but only just

Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has proved yet again that he can count budget votes, shepherding a $39 billion, five-year package of spending cuts through the House yesterday despite the distraction of a leadership election scheduled for today.

Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has proved yet again that he can count budget votes, shepherding a $39 billion, five-year package of spending cuts through the House yesterday despite the distraction of a leadership election scheduled for today.

Blunt, the majority whip who is running to make his interim status as majority leader permanent, engineered a two-vote victory on the first cuts to entitlement programs through budget reconciliation since 1997.

Possible pitfalls littered the path to passage, but Blunt and other lawmakers sought to divorce the budget vote from the election of a new majority leader.

“I really thought these were two separate things,” said Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Blunt’s chief deputy and the front-runner to take over the whip job should Blunt move up.

Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) gave Blunt the margin he needed, breaking a 214-214 tie. The final tally was 216-214, with all of the Democrats who voted and 13 Republicans voting no.

A GOP defeat or a prolonged roll-call vote yesterday could have been damaging to Blunt’s chances. But — like many other tight votes in the 109th Congress — he prevailed.

Yesterday’s vote was the last in a series of tight House and Senate votes on the controversial package of cuts.

The measure was sent back to the House after the Senate — on its last day of work in 2005 — struck several minor provisions on a point of order. Senate Republicans failed to muster the 60 votes necessary to waive the point of order, raised by Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). He objected to a handful of items in the bill on the basis that they violated budget-reconciliation rules requiring that provisions have an effect on spending that is more than incidental to their intended policy changes.

After stripping out the offending provisions, the Senate passed the spending cuts on a 51-50 vote, with Vice President Cheney breaking the tie.

Because the House and Senate must pass identical versions for the measure to be enacted, it was thrown back to the House, which had passed a nearly identical version, 212-206, earlier in December.

Republicans who voted yes in December but no yesterday include Reps. Jim Gerlach (Pa.), Jim Ramstad (Minn.), Rob Simmons (Conn.) and John Sweeney (N.Y.).

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) voted yes yesterday after rejecting the budget bill in December.

Three members did not vote on the bill yesterday: Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) and Gary Miller (R-Calif.). Blumenauer was tending to a family emergency.

In November, the House passed its first version of the spending cuts, a package that would have netted $50 billion in savings over five years, 217-215. That followed a pair of early-2005 House votes on the budget resolution that resulted in votes of 218-214 and 214-211. The Senate vote on the budget-resolution conference report was 52-47.

Despite the budget’s checkered past on the floor, Blunt said several hours before the vote that he welcomed the challenge.

“I’m confident it will pass,” he said.

The legislation mixes spending and savings to achieve a net of $39 billion in cuts over five years.

The savings come from a wide array of federal programs, including student loans, Medicare, Medicaid and a digital-television transition that would yield revenue from the auction of government-owned broadcast spectrum.

The savings represent the first cuts to entitlement programs since 1997, when President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress moved to balance the budget.

Blunt said yesterday, “American families understand that the best, most effective way to operate is not always the most expensive, and we’ve shown that we, too, are committed to maintaining our priorities while taking a good, hard look at inefficiencies in government.”

But the savings this year are not likely to put the government back into black ink anytime soon. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently estimated that current policy foreshadows a deficit of $337 billion in 2006. However, CBO the does not officially project what it expects to be the full cost of military action in Iraq and Afghanistan and expenses stemming from Hurricane Katrina, which it says would push the deficit closer to $360 billion. If various tax cuts are allowed to expire, a small surplus would be realized in 2012, the CBO estimated.

The White House has indicated it expects the 2006 deficit to exceed $400 billion, though the president used his State of the Union address earlier this week to reiterate his pledge to cut the 2004 deficit level initially projected by the White House in half — to about $260 billion — by 2009. The actual deficit for 2004, though still a record high of $413 billion, fell far short of the first projection.