WASHINGTON (AP) - A solid phalanx of Republican moderates drove House GOP leaders to drop a hotly contested plan to open an Alaskan wilderness area to oil drilling as a sweeping budget bill headed toward a vote Thursday.
A plan to allow states to lift a moratorium on oil drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts was also axed.
Still, passage of the broader plan cutting $54 billion from federal benefit programs through the end of the decade remains a challenge, even after the provision permitting oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was dropped.
The Senate has included ANWR drilling in its budget bill and GOP leaders are likely to push hard for the final House-Senate version of the bill to include it.
Many of the same moderates opposed to the drilling plan remain opposed to the bill's provisions curbing Medicaid's growth, tightening eligibility for food stamps and cutting student loan subsidies.
"I have to represent my district," said Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Ill., who represents farmers opposed to cuts in commodity payments as well as the University of Illinois campus, which is upset about cuts to student loans. "At this point, I am very, very skeptical."
The overall bill is a top Republican priority. The Senate last week passed a milder version of the bill to curb the automatic growth of federal spending by $35 billion through the end of the decade.
The House plan cuts more deeply across a broader range of social services, though Republican leaders say the effects will be modest to programs like the Medicaid health system for the poor and disabled. It will still grow much faster than inflation even after beneficiaries face increased copayments and the likely loss of some benefits.
"We are not cutting Medicaid for those truly in need," said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif.
Top Republicans such as Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, and Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., worked into the night Wednesday refining the bill in an attempt to bring uneasy lawmakers on board. Florida Republicans were especially active, helping kill the offshore drilling plan and loosening proposed restrictions on food stamp benefits for legal immigrants.
The decision on the Arctic refuge was a big setback for those who have tried for years to open a coastal strip of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, to oil development. It was a victory for environmentalists, who have lobbied hard against drilling. President Bush has made drilling in the Alaska refuge one of his top energy priorities.
The House Rules Committee formalized the change late Wednesday by issuing the terms of the debate when the House takes up the budget package Thursday.
The decision to drop the ANWR drilling language came after GOP moderates said they would oppose the budget if that language remained.
Protection of the Alaska refuge from oil companies has been championed by environmentalists for years. The House repeatedly has approved drilling in the refuge as part of broad energy legislation, only to see the effort blocked each time by the threat of a filibuster in the Senate.
The budget bill is immune from filibuster, but drilling proponents suddenly found it hard to get the measure accepted by a majority of the House. That's because Democrats oppose the overall budget bill, giving House GOP opponents of drilling in the Arctic enough leverage to have the matter killed.
Twenty-five Republicans, led by Rep. Charles Bass of New Hampshire, signed a letter asking GOP leaders to strike the Alaskan drilling provision from the broader $54 billion budget cut bill.
The moderates knew they had leverage, given the narrow margin of GOP control of the House. It only takes 14 Republican defections to scuttle a bill, assuming every Democrat opposes it.
Still, removing the Arctic oil drilling provision may incite a backlash from lawmakers who strongly favor it, which is a big majority of Republicans. House and Senate GOP leaders are likely to push hard for the final House-Senate version of the bill to include it.
Marnie Funk, a spokeswoman for Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said Domenici considers the Senate-approved ANWR provision "one of the most critical components" in the budget package.
The food stamps change was the only concession to lawmakers upset with a spate of cuts to social programs. GOP leaders bowed to pressure from Cuban-American lawmakers from the Miami area to loosen new restrictions on food stamps benefits for legal immigrants.
Immigrants who are disabled, over the age of 60 or applying for citizenship would be exempt from proposed rules extending the waiting period for food stamp eligibility from five to seven years.
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