By Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 15, 2005; Page A12
A contentious health and education spending bill squeaked through the House on its second try yesterday, but a broader Republican effort to cut some mandatory domestic programs continued to falter.
The $142.5 billion package, which would fund the departments of Health and Human Services, Education, and Labor for fiscal 2006, was approved 215 to 213. The House rejected a similar bill 224 to 209 last month. Lawmakers from both parties protested a broad squeeze on popular programs, such as low-income heating assistance and the National Institutes of Health. House and Senate Republican negotiators were forced to make minor adjustments to push the giant bill through the House.
Their struggle reflects a deeper problem that GOP congressional leaders are confronting as they try to wrap up the legislative year, possibly by Saturday. Eager to restore their fiscal credibility after several years of spending growth and rising deficits, Republicans are attempting to tighten the federal belt, both through leaner spending bills, and through separate budget cuts that target mandatory programs such as Medicaid and food stamps.
The House's struggle to pass the health and education bill illustrated how difficult many lawmakers are finding it to actually wield the ax. "I recognize that we had limited resources," said Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who negotiated the House package.
Regula won most of the needed votes, all Republican, by adding $90 million for rural health programs. He picked up at least one key ally by restoring $90 million in Medicare prescription drug coverage.
Overall, the health and education bill came in about $1.5 billion smaller than last year's version. Numerous programs were trimmed, frozen or granted modest increases, including Meals on Wheels, Head Start and heating assistance for low-income people. The widely supported National Institutes of Health received its smallest funding increase since 1970.
The legislation is expected to narrowly pass the Senate as early as today, although Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he would "cast a protest vote" against it, if his support is not needed for passage.
House Republican leaders have said this week that a final deal on the budget bill is not necessary before Congress adjourns for the year. But at a closed meeting of House Republicans, conservatives adamantly maintained that lawmakers should be willing to work through the weekend, or even return after Christmas, to complete the budget-cutting measure. They suggested they would be willing to accept more modest cuts to entitlement spending, without hits to Medicaid or food stamps, if the House Republican leadership makes good on the across-the-board cut.