WASHINGTON -- While the news media's attention last Thursday was fixed on steroids in baseball, Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire delivered a grim prediction on the Senate floor. If a pending amendment to the budget resolution passed, the Senate Budget Committee chairman said, it "will guarantee that the issue of Medicaid is not addressed . . . in this decade." The amendment passed, 52 to 48, with implications well beyond one program.
This eliminated $15 billion of reductions in Medicaid increases over five years, meaning the Republican-controlled Senate choked over cutting just four-tenths of one percent of entitlements. The vote represented a reluctance to touch a program of health care for the poor swollen far beyond its original intent. If Congress cannot control Medicaid, how can it be expected to deal with the more daunting problems of Medicare and Social Security? Last Thursday, the Senate voted for spending. Gregg, a flinty New England Yankee not given to exaggeration, called the Senate's action a "disaster."
In a half-century of watching Congress, I have never seen anything like the unified Democratic stand against any reduction in entitlements or discretionary spending. For all their lecturing about restoring "fiscal integrity," Democrats in both houses of Congress support only tax increases and provide no help whatsoever in cutting spending. But last Thursday's melancholy developments show that Republicans, more than a decade after taking over Congress, cannot stand up against spending either.
President Bush's Medicaid reductions were modest, and they were trimmed by Gregg's Budget Committee. But that was still too much for Sen. Gordon Smith, a Republican representing the "Blue" state of Oregon who offered his amendment eliminating the Medicaid cuts.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist tried to cut off support for Smith's amendment with a face-saving proposal to pledge the integrity of Medicaid. But he lost six votes (including the normally reliable Norm Coleman) as Frist's amendment was rejected, 51 to 49. The veteran Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, ever the artful dodger, voted for the Frist amendment and then, seeing which way the tide rolled, voted for the Smith amendment (which passed 52 to 48).
These Republican defections may seem minor, but they proved decisive in view of Democratic solidarity. Two nights before the House and Senate budget votes, two senior House Democrats told me not one of their colleagues ever will vote to reduce their constituents' Social Security benefits.