Lawmakers in weekend session dealing with deficit cutting, hurricane aid, military spending, oil drilling
WASHINGTON – Congressional Republicans agreed Saturday on $29 billion in additional aid for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the other powerful storms that lashed the United States earlier this year, far more than the Bush administration proposed earlier this fall.”We have a good agreement,” said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who has patrolled the Capitol for days in an effort to coax as much money as possible from lawmakers eager to adjourn for the year.Officials stressed the additional funds would not add to federal deficits, a priority for conservative lawmakers. They said the hurricane relief as well as an additional $3.8 billion to help prepare for an outbreak of avian flu would be offset, in part by a 1 percent cut across a wide swath of federal programs.The cut would affect domestic programs as well as defense and homeland security, according Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Federal support for veterans, whose ranks are swelling as the result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, would not be affected, he said.The accord cleared one of several obstacles in the way of adjournment for the year. The House and Senate each scheduled Sunday sessions, wrapping their Saturday work by early evening.GOP leaders also neared agreement on legislation to trim deficits by an estimated $40 billion over the next several years. Savings would come from several programs, including student loans, Medicare and Medicaid, the state-federal partnership that provides health care for the poor.Legislation to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, long a GOP priority, hung in the balance.A fresh controversy flared when House Republicans, in a move designed to hinder Democratic-aligned political groups, pressed a last-minute bid to pass legislation limiting individual donations to independent groups.Democrats objected, saying the GOP was holding up passage of a defense bill to seek partisan gain. “I think it’s a travesty,” said Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., long involved in efforts to reduce the influence of money in political campaigns.On another issue, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said, “It’s incumbent on us” to pass a renewal of the Patriot Act. President Bush lambasted Democrats who blocked enactment of the anti-terrorism law on Friday, saying, “That decision is irresponsible and it endangers the lives of our citizens.”Democrats fired back quickly. “Fear mongering and false choices do little to advance either the security or liberty of Americans,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. He urged the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress to accept changes to the Patriot Act that would protect the rights of the innocent.The agreement on hurricane aid was a triumph for Sen. Thad Cochran, the Mississippi Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.Faced with pressure from lawmakers, the White House proposed an additional $17 billion in aid earlier this fall. Cochran countered with $18 billion on top of that, and circulated a list of possible offsets to prevent the deficit from rising.Officials said some of the funds would be available for one of Barbour’s top priorities – permitting federal aid to homeowners whose residences suffered water damage and are outside the federal government’s 100-year floodplain. Few of them were covered by flood insurance.Other funds would be available for levee protection in New Orleans, and $1.6 billion will reimburse schools in Texas and elsewhere that quickly absorbed children who were forced to leave storm-damaged areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama after Katrina struck. Some of the money will be available to religious schools, officials said.Most of the $29 billion has already been approved by Congress for other programs, and will be diverted into different accounts. The across-the-board cuts are estimated to offset another $8.5 billion.Frist and the White House had made a priority of additional funds to prepare for a pandemic, but the $3.8 billion was roughly half what they originally sought.”A pandemic is going to occur and we don’t know when, but … we are drastically underprepared,” the Tennessee Republican said on the Senate floor.Separately, House and Senate leaders reported progress toward agreement on legislation designed to curb the rising costs of health care for the poor and the student loan program. Under pressure from Senate moderates, the two sides have jettisoned plans to find savings in food stamps.Overall, the two sides were aiming at deficit cuts of at least $40 billion over five years, but that goal ran headlong into pressure for higher spending elsewhere.Two officials said that at the behest of the nation’s doctors, the GOP leadership was leaning toward canceling a Jan. 1 cut of 4 percent in fees paid to physicians under Medicare, the health care program for the elderly. The change would leave the fees unchanged through 2006, at an estimated cost to the government of as much as $8 billion.Some of the expense would be offset by putting in place new standards for doctors, but officials were looking at other potential sources of funding, as well. One possibility was reducing the money flowing to newly created HMOs under Medicare.Another savings under review would impose a one-year freeze on certain home health care payments.Officials who described the talks did so on condition of anonymity, saying the discussions were sensitive.Lawmakers also were discussing approving $3 billion for home heating assistance for the poor and nearly $4 billion in new education grants for low-income students and for those interested in math and science.—- Eds: Associated Press Writers Andrew Taylor and Liz Sidoti contributed to this story.