Blunt won't gamble on budget votes

Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told the House Republican Conference yesterday that he would not take upcoming budget and spending legislation to the floor without being certain of winning the 218 votes he needs for passage, a response to nearly losing a close vote on energy legislation before the October recess.

Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told the House Republican Conference yesterday that he would not take upcoming budget and spending legislation to the floor without being certain of winning the 218 votes he needs for passage, a response to nearly losing a close vote on energy legislation before the October recess.

Blunt, who is also the majority whip, is taking a cautious approach to the upcoming budget and spending votes in the midst of complaints from Republican lawmakers who say House leaders should follow regular procedures on floor votes.

Before the October recess, House Republican leaders held open a vote on energy legislation for 45 minutes to give the GOP whip operation enough time to cobble together the necessary 212 votes.

A leadership aide acknowledged that Blunt’s message to his colleagues was “in response to what happened with that energy bill” and lawmakers said they support the more conventional approach.

“I’ve said very clearly on a number of occasions that we need to get back to regular order,” said Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.), a member of the Ways and Means Committee, one of several panels that have been asked to find billions of dollars worth of savings to offset the costs for Hurricane Katrina. Linder said he conveyed his concern in private conversations with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), the co-chairman of the Republican Tuesday Group, a caucus of Republican centrists, expressed similar sentiments.

“I’d like to go back to regular order and make sure we have a majority of members before we move,” he said.

Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) echoed those views and argued that holding votes open beyond their allotted time does “not reflect well on the House as an institution.” He called Blunt’s statement to the conference “an appropriate correction.”

By announcing the new guidelines, Blunt conveyed to conservative and centrist members of the GOP conference the need to work together to identify spending cuts and stressed that without party unity there will be no action.

The higher threshold is causing leaders to lean against holding a vote scheduled for today on a historic amendment to the budget resolution. A leadership aide said there is an “80 percent” chance that leaders will cancel it.

The amendment would increase by $15 billion the amount of savings House chairman are instructed to find in their areas of jurisdiction. The so-called reconciliation target is currently at nearly $35 billion.

Blunt’s new guidelines would apply to a series of legislation including the reconciliation package scheduled for later this month and the 10 remaining appropriations bills.

After yesterday’s conference meeting, Blunt reiterated his position at a press conference, telling reporters that on budget and appropriations issues he would not take legislation to the floor unless he was sure he had enough votes to pass it. On other issues, he said, he still envisioned bringing up bills that were not certain of passage to test the positions of Republicans and Democrats alike.

Kirk said that centrists and conservatives are supportive of spending cuts but are having difficulty agreeing on exactly what to cut. He said a group of centrists are strongly attached to several of the social welfare programs on the chopping block and that members of the conservative caucus, the Republican Study Committee, oppose cuts to defense spending.

Republicans are also divided over other spending cuts.

Rep. Nancy Johnson (R), chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee’s Health Subcommittee, whose southern Connecticut district includes heavily Democratic areas such as Waterbury, raised concerns yesterday over proposed across-the-board discretionary spending cuts, according to a lawmaker who heard her address the conference.

Republicans are also split about whether members of Congress should receive a cost-of-living salary increase. Blunt yesterday said that he supports the pay raise, but several members of the Republican Study Committee said they and their colleagues should sacrifice and personally feel the impact of spending cuts along with their constituents.

Lawmakers who spoke on condition of anonymity were more critical of the cliffhanger energy vote before recess.

“Members were so irritated by the whole fiasco on the floor,” one senior GOP lawmaker said.

Republican aides familiar with the events leading up the vote on the energy bill said that Blunt was not to blame for the unexpectedly close vote because the GOP leaders did not expect that Democrats would take a political stand on legislation that many of them previously supported. Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas), the staffers said, overpredicted the level of Democratic support.

“We had high hopes, as we always do, but low expectations,” Barton spokesman Larry Neal said in response to the criticism. “It had become plain to us very early that the Democratic leadership pulled out all the stops to make this a prime political vote.”

Republicans say that Democrats, specifically Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), a member of the Energy Committee, broke their promises to Barton to vote for the bill.

In an interview, an aide to Green said that Barton gave him permission to break his pledge to support the bill after it became clear that a yes vote was not in Green’s political interests.

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