Budget reconciliation stumbling to a vote on the House floor

The controversial budget-reconciliation and spending package expected to hit the House floor this week will arrive with far less fanfare than other recent hard-fought bills that Republicans have pushed to passage.

President Bush and big business are not going all out to pass the budget bill, contrasting with the lobbying blitz on the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) earlier this year and the Medicare drug measure in 2003.

Instead, the reconciliation-spending package is beset by unanimous opposition from House Democrats, griping from certain House Republicans and near silence from both the business and ideologically conservative special interest groups inside the Beltway.

The budget bill could stumble to the floor as early as today, with Republican leaders in the House considering 11th-hour changes last night. They could also postpone a vote until this weekend.

Meanwhile, rhetoric on the bill has escalated as conservatives and centrists battle over the merits of it.

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC), told members in the closed-door conference meeting yesterday that anyone voting against reconciliation had turned his or her back on the so-called Reagan Revolution, according to a GOP aide in attendance.

Centrists continue to object to the cuts in social programs after successfully rallying against provisions on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and the rest of their leadership structure have spent much of the fall listening to member concerns and weighing the critical decisions about the contents of the bill.

“He’s been working day and night,” Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.)  said about the efforts of the Speaker. “He’s the gold standard with our members.”

In the last two weeks, Hastert has spent most of his time out of the public eye, consistent with his understated leadership style. He did miss a hastily organized press conference last week to postpone the reconciliation vote because he was meeting with members of the RSC.

The Hastert no-show raised some eyebrows, but lawmakers throughout the conference said the Speaker has been meeting with members one on one and working the phones during the last three weeks. He is also working to finish the remaining appropriations bills, including the potentially controversial defense reauthorization, and bring the reauthorization of the Patriot Act and a border-security bill to the floor.

“This is his vote,” LaHood said of reconciliation.

On the eve of the vote, undecided members were still weighing their options.

“I’m still reluctant to vote for it,” said Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) yesterday morning before meeting with Blunt. Saxton is concerned with some of the land sale provisions added by the Resources Committee.

“I have substantial reservations about this bill,” said Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) upon leaving the morning conference meeting yesterday. “I’ve made that clear.” Wilson has publicly criticized the bill’s Medicaid spending cuts.

Among her other concerns is the transition to digital television, which congressional leaders included to auction off some of the bandwidth to raise money against the deficit. Wilson voted against it when it was marked up in the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of Energy and Commerce, said he would vote against the bill because it does not include ANWR language.

“I’ve been to more sessions with leadership this week than I have in the last two years,” said Mike Castle (R-Del.), who was still undecided but counseled reporters that “I’ve never said I would not vote for it.”

Republican leaders in the House have moved on this bill without overt help from some usual allies.

The White House has been distracted by the president’s own spiraling approval ratings, due in large part to questions surrounding the Iraq war, the administration’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans and the recent indictment of a top White House aide.

With Bush touring Asia, the administration is unable to give congressional Republicans the same boost it gave in the days before the contentious vote on CAFTA. Lacking votes, Bush lobbied House members before the bill eventually cleared, 217-215.

Behind the scenes, Brian Conklin and Candida Wolff, of the White House legislative-affairs office, have met with Blunt every day for the past two weeks, one GOP leadership aide said.

In addition, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman gave members a pep talk during a conference meeting last week, telling them his office will help them sell this message, the aide said. National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) reiterated that message and told members they would not lose races on this issue alone.

In his dual role as majority leader and whip, Blunt has done much of the heavy lifting on this bill in both public and private. Last week, he and Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) held “more than [four] dozen member meetings,” one Republican leadership aide said. That pace has continued this week.

Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), who has been publicly opposed to the savings package and remains publicly uncommitted, told reporters yesterday that the bill remains in flux.

In anticipation of the vote, some members used yesterday’s conference meeting to pressure their reluctant colleagues while others tried to quell their fears.

Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), a member of Blunt’s whip organization, reminded members that congressional Republicans faced a barrage of negative press and opposition advertising heading in to the 1996 election but Republicans ultimately lost only two seats.

Jonathan Allen contributed to this report.

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