Republicans fail to reduce spending on education, health care

Andrew Taylor and Andrew Taylor

WASHINGTON – Republicans suffered a startling setback in the House yesterday, losing a vote on cutting spending for education and health care programs. A broader budget-cutting blueprint targeting the poor, college students and farmers also was in danger.

Both bills are part of a campaign by Republican leaders to burnish their party’s budget-cutting credentials as they try to reduce a deficit swelled by spending on the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina. In both cases, GOP moderates balked.

The 224-209 vote against a $602 billion spending bill for health, education and labor programs disrupted plans by the Republican leaders to finish work on 11 spending bills that would pay for government operations and freeze many agency budgets through next September.

Democrats were unanimous in opposing that one-year appropriations bill. “It betrays our nation’s values and its future,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. “It is neither compassionate, conservative nor wise.”

A companion deficit-reduction bill that would slice $50 billion from the deficit through the end of the decade, also faces unanimous opposition from Democrats, as well as from many moderate Republicans who are unhappy with cuts to Medicaid, food stamps and college loan subsidies.

It would cut from so-called mandatory programs whose budgets increase automatically every year. The proposed savings are modest considering the $14 trillion the government is set to spend during the five-year period.

Republicans say the measure is a first step to restoring fiscal discipline by curbing rapidly growing benefit programs whose budgets spiral upward each year unless reined in by Congress.

“What we want to have is a good first step in reforming out-of-control entitlement spending,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas.

GOP leaders sent the House into recess after the embarrassing defeat of the spending bill. The 22 GOP defections on that vote cast doubt on whether House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., would bring the broader deficit-reduction bill to the floor later in the day.

“There’s a message in this,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said of the House vote, “and that’s that the people of America are only going to accept so many cuts in health care, in Medicaid, in Medicare, in transportation and other vital areas.”

Earlier Thursday, House GOP leaders eased their planned five-year cuts to health and nutrition programs for the poor, trying to win votes from reluctant moderates for the contentious deficit-reduction bill.