Peoria Journal Star

March 22, 2003

LaHood helps change budget bill
He votes for version without Medicare cuts, still has concerns about deficit, war funding

By DORI MEINERT
of Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Despite his concern over war costs and a rising federal deficit, U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood joined with other Illinois Republicans early Friday to vote in the U.S. House for a federal budget that includes $726 billion in tax cuts backed by President Bush.

The Peoria Republican had voiced concerns about an earlier version of the spending blueprint as approved by the House Budget Committee.

But he and other GOP moderates forced committee leaders to make last-minute changes that avoided cuts to Medicare and veterans' programs, evidently making the plan more palatable.

While a disappointment to balanced budget advocates, hospital officials in his district praised his support of the final plan.

The American Hospital Association has estimated the committee's original plan would have cost hospitals in LaHood's central Illinois district $46 million a year in lost Medicare payments.

"It would have been absolutely devastating," said Fred Kalsbeek, government affairs chief at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria. "Had this concept gone through, it would have had direct impact on our ability to provide services to Medicare patients, no question about that."

The plan approved by the House on Friday in a 215-212 vote did not contain a Budget Committee proposal for a one percent across-the-board cut to Medicare. The American Hospital Association estimated that the committee's initiative would have translated into $200 billion in program cuts over 10 years.

Last-minute changes also were made to Medicaid, but the AHA said they hadn't yet analyzed those changes.

By all accounts, the moderates were under considerable pressure from the White House and House Republican leaders to support the president's plan.

"It's not easy for someone to stand up against their own leaders, their own party. There's a great risk there," Kalsbeek said.

Before the final vote, LaHood was one of just 10 Republicans who voted for an alternative offered by fiscal conservatives that would have reduced the tax cut while holding down spending. The proposed amendment was rejected.

That alternative was endorsed by the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that advocates a balanced budget and deficit reduction.

Despite the defeat on that amendment, coalition officials said they were pleased with the moderates' willingness to stand up to the GOP leadership.

"Moderates were clearly able to effect change to the budget resolution," said Concord Coalition Executive Director Bob Bixby. While he said he was disappointed with LaHood's support for the final plan, he said, "I understand the pressure that members are under."

LaHood wasn't available for comment on Friday, but Bixby said many GOP moderates voted for the final plan only because they expect the tax cuts to be reduced in a conference with the Senate.

The Senate on Friday reduced President Bush's proposed tax cuts by $100 billion over 10 years, diverting the funds to the war. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., favored that cut; it was opposed by U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill. Fitzgerald, who is facing re-election next year, has been a strong supporter of the president's plan.

Neither the House nor the Senate budget plan contains funding for the war with Iraq, which drew complaints from LaHood in an interview on Monday.

"To say that we're going to reduce every government program and pay for a huge tax cut doesn't reflect the right priorities." LaHood said in the interview.

"It doesn't reflect my way of thinking. I think we need to pay attention to the deficit. We need to pay attention to the debt. We need to pay attention to the fact that this war is going to cost $100 billion," LaHood added.

LaHood also had problems with the White House proposal to eliminate taxes on corporate dividends, saying it wouldn't help "the average, ordinary person out there who's going to work every day."