WASHINGTON The Republican-controlled Senate passed legislation to cut federal deficits by $39.7 billion on Wednesday by the narrowest of margins, 51-50, with Vice President
Dick Cheney casting the deciding vote.
The measure, the product of a year’s labors by the White House and the GOP in Congress, imposes the first restraints in nearly a decade in federal benefit programs such as Medicaid, Medicare and student loans.
Due to a Democratic point of order, the conference report will now go back to the House of Representatives.
The president applauded the Senate vote, saying it is a victory for taxpayers and fiscal restraint.
“This will be the first time in nearly a decade that Congress has reduced entitlement spending,” President Bush said in a statement. “This strong bill demonstrates our commitment to funding our nation’s priorities and making sure our taxpayers’ money is spent wisely.”
In a final plea for passage, Senator Judd Gregg, the New Hampshire Republican who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee said, “This is the one vote you’ll have this year to reduce the rate of growth of the federal government.”
But Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada countered that the GOP was advancing “an ideologically driven, extreme, radical budget. It caters to lobbyists and an elite group of ultraconservative ideologues here in Washington, all at the expense of middle class Americans,” he said.
AIDS and gay rights advocates also criticized the bill.
The budget package permits new premiums and deductibles and higher cost sharing on Medicaid beneficiaries. Medicaid is the country’s largest payer of HIV care costs.
A provision in the Senate version of the reconciliation bill was stripped out in conference that would have given some states the option to extend Medicaid coverage through a demonstration program to childless adults with HIV who are currently ineligible for Medicaid until they develop AIDS, according to a statement released by the Human Rights Campaign.
Current law requires that all Medicaid beneficiaries be treated fairly and have access to all of the medically necessary Medicaid services their state provides. The budget reconciliation package changes that law by giving states new flexibility that allows them to discriminate groups of Medicaid beneficiaries, the Human Rights Cam-paign statement said.
States will now be allowed to provide more services to some beneficiaries than to others, based on political or arbitrary considerations instead of relying on the professional judgments of health care providers, the organization said.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said with this vote, “Congress has handed over authority to extremists with the potential to harm thousands of Americans.”
Solmonese added, “It is unacceptable to pull the rug out from under hundreds of thousands of our neighbors living with HIV and simply say your government is not there for you. We should be focusing on ways to improve these systems, not shoving them onto the cutting room floor.”
Home health care payments under Medicare would be frozen at current levels for a year under the bill, Medicaid regulations would be changed to make it harder for the elderly to qualify for federal nursing home benefits by turning assets over to their children.