A vote for spending

Posted: Mar 21, 2005 12:00 AM

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. 

 No Democrat broke ranks on the Frist and Smith amendments. Every Democrat in both the House and Senate voted against their respective budget resolutions on final passage. The "no" votes by 12 House Republicans meant the budget passed by only a four-vote margin.

 GOP defections nearly lost the budget resolution itself on final Senate passage. Intense pressure was put on Sen. Susan Collins to abandon her fellow Maine Republican, Sen. Olympia Snowe, to vote for the resolution. Collins was told it was important for her, as a standing committee chairman, to support the president and the majority leader. She did, and the resolution passed, 51 to 49. Had Collins broken ranks and made it a 50-50 vote, four other Republicans were ready to jump the wall and defeat the resolution.

 But to what purpose was it saved? Nobody is sure a Senate-House conference can produce a compromise package. House conferees will insist on taking at least a small first step toward cutting entitlements, but the same six or seven Republican senators who killed the Medicaid cuts will resist that. If, on the other hand, the conferees end up with something like the Senate version, said Judd Gregg, "I'm not sure that's anything worth keeping."

 The problem is the mindset of Gordon Smith in talking about needs of "the most vulnerable people in our society" trumping the need to control government spending. Gregg responded to his colleague with blunt language: "It is absolutely critical that this year we address the Medicaid issue and why it is not going to impact any children and why all this 'wearing your heart on the sleeve' language we heard around here is a large amount of puffery." But he couldn't find 49 other Republican senators who agreed with him.