WASHINGTON (AP) – House Republicans voted to cut student loan subsidies, child support enforcement and aid to firms hurt by unfair trade practices as various committees scrambled to piece together $50 billion in budget cuts.

More politically difficult votes – to cut Medicaid, food stamps and farm subsidies – are on tap Thursday as more panels weigh in on the bill. It was originally intended to cut $35 billion in spending over five years, but after pressure from conservatives, GOP leaders directed committees to cut another $15 billion to help pay the cost of hurricane recovery.

President Bush met with House and Senate GOP leaders and said he was pleased with the progress. He also appeared to endorse a plan by House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s plan for an across-the-board cut in agency budgets, perhaps including the Pentagon, by the end of the year.

“I encourage Congress to push the envelope when it comes to cutting spending,” Bush said.

Dozens of issues are at play as Republicans in both the House and Senate cobble together the sprawling budget bill. The measure is the first in eight years to take aim at the automatic growth of federal spending programs such as Medicaid and Medicare.

In the Senate, the Budget Committee voted along party lines to bundle together the work of eight legislative committees into a bill that will be debated next week by the full Senate. The Congressional Budget Office said the Senate measure would save $39 billion over five years – $4 billion more than the budget passed last spring.

Pressed to produce more savings than the Senate, House committees took more political chances in drafting the $50 billion House plan, which has become a rallying point for the GOP’s conservative wing and its anxiety about hurricane relief worsening the deficit.

The House Education and the Workforce panel, for example, was told to generate $18 billion in savings over five years. On Wednesday it approved squeezing lenders in the student loan program and raising premiums to employers for government insurance of their employees’ and retirees’ pension benefits.

It also imposes new fees on students who default on loans or consolidate them and higher fees on parents who borrow on behalf of their college-age children. California Rep. George Miller, the senior Democrat on the panel, called the package a “raid on student aid.”

The Ways and Means Committee approved on a party-line vote a plan by its chairman, Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., with so many difficult-to-swallow provisions that lawmakers and aides whispered about whether the intent was to make it hard for GOP leaders to win its passage in the full House.

It includes $3.8 billion in cuts to child support enforcement. Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., charged that Republicans were appealing to the “constituency of deadbeat dads.”

The bill also would tighten eligibility standards for foster care assistance in nine states and delay some lump-sum payments to very poor and elderly beneficiaries of Social Security’s Supplemental Security Income program.

“It was abundantly clear that Thomas didn’t want to do this stuff,” said an aide to a Ways and Means Republican who spoke on condition of anonymity but cited meetings that occurred behind the scenes. House GOP leaders this month directed Thomas to produce $8 billion in savings, eight times the original target he was assigned.

The Ways and Means plan also would eliminate payments to industries harmed by unfair foreign trade practices. Those payments come from the proceeds of duties on foreign goods “dumped” into the U.S. market.

The House Resources Committee approved a controversial plan to raise $2.4 billion in lease revenues by permitting oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Minority Democrats opposed virtually everything that was done, saying Wednesday’s actions are part of a broader GOP budget blueprint that also calls for $106 billion in new tax cuts over the next five years.

“They are targeting programs for poor people to pay for tax cuts for rich people,” said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis. Once those tax cuts are passed, Obey added, deficits will be increasing again.

AP-ES-10-26-05 1925EDT


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