WASHINGTON -- House and Senate conferees have tentatively decided to remove a threat to the budget package by dropping a provision designed to enforce the bill's $90 billion of entitlement cuts, a top Senate aide said last week.
But an aide to the House member who sponsored the entitlement review provision said no decision has been made yet.
Conferees opposed to the provision want to avoid a parliamentary problem that would enable Republicans to kill the conference bill on the Senate floor, said John Hilley, chief of staff for Senate majority leader George Mitchell, D-Me.
The problem arises because the Senate Budget Committee and the full Senate did not include the provision in their versions of the bill. Under budget law, this means that any of the Senate's 44 Republicans can raise a point of order against the provision when the conference bill comes to the floor. If 41 senators vote to uphold the procedural point, the entire bill would be defeated, Hilley said on Thursday.
"The entitlement review provision is coming out, but we're looking for another vehicle" to pass it, Hilley said.
The provision, drafted by conservative Democrats hoping to rein in the government's $767 billion of benefits programs, would require the President and Congress to consider taking corrective action if entitlements still exceed the levels specified in the bill after imposition of the measure's spending cuts.
Despite Hilley's remarks, an aide to Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Tex., chairman of the Conservative Democratic Forum and one of the provision's principal sponsors, said the measure has not been dropped just yet.
"It is not my understanding that a decision has been made. The Senate majority leader is one of the people who have been urging that conclusion," said Rebecca Tice, Stenholm's legislative director.
Tice said Stenholm and other House sponsors of the provision are still attempting to find ways to get around the Senate procedural problem so that the provision can be included in the budget package. But she conceded that "It may ultimately reach the point where we can't find a way around the procedural hurdles." She said Stenholm does not want to see the entire bill go down because of the provision.
Stenholm has been trying to reach one of the provision's chief critics, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the ranking minority member of the Senate Budget Committee and author of a stiffer entitlement cap provision, to persuade him not to raise a point of order, as he has threatened to do, Tice said.
However, Stenholm so far has been unsuccessful in getting through to the senator, she said.
Bill Hoagland, minority staff director of the Budget Committee, said Domenici, if given the opportunity, has every intention of using the procedural point to sink the budget package.
"I can assure you the point of order will be raised. They would be taking a terrible gamble by putting it in if they aren't sure of having the 60 votes over here, " Hoagland said.
"We don't support the bill in totality anyway" because of its large tax increases and relatively small spending cuts, "so why would we want to lock in" the entitlement cuts, he asked.
While Domenici is "supportive of some of what Stenholm is trying to do, " Hoagland said, "I don't see any way in this partisan environment where we will be able to help him. "
So far, not a single Republican has voted for the House or Senate versions of the budget. But Hoagland and Tice said the entitlement provision's sponsors have been trying to drum up votes from among moderate Senate Republicans who, in a less partisan environment, might be expected to support the plan. Those include Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan.; Sen. Charles Grassley. R-Iowa; and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Hoagland said.
Tice conceded that even swaying a handful of Senate Republicans to vote for the provision may not be enough to ensure its enactment.
Many liberal Democrats in the Senate also oppose the provision because of its potentially adverse impact on Medicare, Medicaid, and other benefits programs. They might throw their weight behind the Republican move to kill it, she said.
Hoagland said one reason Domenici is vowing to kill the House entitlement plan is that he hopes that Congress next year will pass stronger entitlement controls like his cap proposal, perhaps as part of the upcoming health-care reform legislation.
The two fastest growing entitlement programs, Medicare and Medicaid, are both health-care programs that Democrats and Republicans alike have vowed to get under control as part of the reform measure.
"We'll have a much better shot next year" of getting something like Domenici's caps, which would prevent the benefits programs from growing more than 2% faster than the rate of inflation and population growth, Hoagland said. Unlike the House proposal, he noted, the Domenici caps would be mandatory.
Another reason Domenici and Senate Republicans want to kill the House provision, Hoagland said, is that doing so puts pressure on the budget conferees to include bigger spending cuts in the final bill to appease conservative Democrats and compensate for the loss.
He said Stenholm and other conservatives recently have been stepping up their efforts to increase the size of the package's spending cuts and eliminate some of its new spending provisions.
But Tice denied that Stenholm has been pushing for bigger spending cuts as an alternative to the entitlement review provision. Rather, he sees them as an alternative to the bill's large energy tax increase, she said.
Tice said that Stenholm views the Senate leadership's offer to find another legislative vehicle for the review provision as a strategy of last resort.
House Budget Committee Chairman Martin Sabo, D-Minn., and the House leadership continue to express support for including the provision in the budget package, she said, though the House leadership, like its Senate counterpart, has suggested separating it from the budget package.
One alternative suggested by House leaders has been to use unusual House procedures that break out the entitlement provision as a separate bill after the House passes the budget conference report, she said.
But Hoagland said the provision, even as a separate bill, would face the same procedural landmine in the Senate.