Senate seeks to revive Arctic drilling

Posted: Wednesday, March 08, 2006

WASHINGTON - The Senate will drop President Bush's proposals for new tax cuts and politically painful cuts to Medicare and instead revisit the battle over allowing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as it takes up its budget plan for next year.

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Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said Tuesday that after shepherding through a five-year, $39 billion benefit cut bill last year, he didn't have the votes for a second round of cuts to federal programs like Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and farm subsidies.

Gregg is expected to reveal his budget blueprint Wednesday and said he hopes to bring it to a committee vote Thursday with floor debate possible next week.

Separately, House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters Tuesday that a companion House budget plan is on hold while GOP leaders try to work out compromises on various proposals to overhaul the budget process, such as earmark "reform" and a new proposal to create a modified line-item veto power for Bush.

For his part, Gregg has opted for what he calls a "vanilla exercise" that drops most but not all of Bush's controversial proposals as nonstarters in a difficult election-year environment.

Gregg has also said he will not press for a new round of tax cuts like Bush's plan to expand health savings accounts or make the president's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent. While his budget will reflect many of Bush's cuts for presentation purposes, it won't award filibuster-proof protection to legislation to actually enact them into law.

Instead, under pressure from Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, Gregg has drafted a plan that would allow drilling in Alaska's coastal plain, known as ANWR, to advance under fast-track budget rules that block Democrats from filibustering the proposal to death as they did last year.

The ANWR gambit is a long shot. Last year's effort failed because House Republican opponents of drilling in the pristine wildlife reserve teamed up with Democratic opponents of GOP budget cuts to force the Arctic drilling proposal out of last year's budget cut bill.

The first step under Congress' arcane procedures for implementing the federal budget is to pass a budget resolution. That's a nonbinding blueprint that sets the limits of subsequent bills to implement the plan, including the appropriations bills that Congress passes each year.

Less frequently, a budget resolution spins off a so-called reconciliation bill to cut benefit programs like Medicare. Last year's budget-cut bill - signed by Bush last month - was the first in eight years and passed by the narrowest of margins. Many GOP lawmakers voted for it reluctantly.

Election-year politics have driven many of Gregg's decisions and have frustrated the conservative New Englander, who is one of Congress' most ardent advocates of bringing federal benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare under control before the Baby Boom generation's retirement threatens to swamp them.

But Gregg got little support when approaching fellow committee chairmen responsible for helping to craft a second budget-cut bill to follow on last year's effort.

"I went to the chairmen of the committees which were responsible for reconciliation and all of them felt that in this climate it would be very difficult for them to do that," Gregg said.

Bush called for $65 billion in benefit cuts over five years when submitting his budget a month ago. Many of his proposals, such as curbs to food stamps and crop subsidies, were rejected by lawmakers last year.

Gregg said his budget blueprint will come closer to Bush's budget in setting caps on this year's round of appropriations bills.

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