Feb. 1, 2006 – The final vote is looming on a budget bill slated to dramatically chop funding for services to societyâ€™s neediest. With the US House of Representatives set to cast a decisive ballot on the legislation as early as today, advocacy groups are racing to secure enough votes to defeat the measure.
The 2006 budget reconciliation bill, if passed into law, would cut the federal Medicaid and Medicare budgets by $11.2 billion over five years. It would also raise the work requirements for parents on welfare and decrease funding for student loans. The Bush administration and conservative lawmakers tout the measure as necessary for reigning in the federal deficit and have dubbed the bill the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005.
But advocacy groups for the poor, seniors and people with disabilities have launched a furious campaign over the last month to beat back the cuts, which they say will disproportionately and negatively affect the standard of living for the nationâ€™s most economically vulnerable.
"We will let the country and Congress know that this bill hurts children, seniors, struggling families, students and people with disabilities," wrote the Coalition for Human Needs in an appeal to supporters. "It sacrifices opportunity and security for all â€“ only to pour billions of dollars into tax cuts for the few."
When the House last voted on the measure, the count was a close 212â€“206. But after a congressional recess and concerted lobbying, especially from politically strong groups like the powerful seniorsâ€™ advocate AARP, a few lawmakers have said they may switch their votes. Sensing the vulnerability of the Republican leadershipâ€™s fragile majority, activists have stepped up their campaigns in recent days, encouraging opponents of the bill to pressure their congressional representatives.
"AARP is urging the US House of Representatives to vote â€˜noâ€™ on the irresponsible budget reconciliation bill because it could deny essential health and long-term care to millions of Americans," wrote the group in a statement. "While this harmful bill narrowly passed the House once, representatives have a unique opportunity to vote again on this bill â€“ now that it is clear how it would deny millions of Americans the health care they need."
Among those reportedly in the newly undecided camp are Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania), Sherwood Boehlert (R-New York), Christopher Shays (R-Connecticut), John Sweeny (R-New York) and Jim Gerlach (R-Pennsylvania). Republican Rob Simmons of Connecticut has announced his will switch to oppose the measure, according to the Associated Press.
In spite of the opposition, acting majority leader Roy Blunt of Missouri has said that he is confident of his partyâ€™s ability to maintain the votes necessary to pass the budget cuts into law.
Even if the billâ€™s opponents are not successful, the groups see their organizing as a long-term strategy. Brad Woodhouse, spokesperson for the Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities (ECAP) told Senior Journal, "If they win â€“ and we're not convinced they will â€“ we want to spill blood in the process so that they are gun-shy about turning around and doing this again in the next budget."
The Emergency Campaign is a temporary coalition of groups organizing to defeat the cuts, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the AFL-CIO, the National Womenâ€™s Law Center, People for the American Way, MoveOn.org Political Action, the United States Student, and the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities.
On Friday, a new report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) raised media attention for advocacy groups arguing against the bill. The CBO report predicts a rise in healthcare costs by 2010 for about a fifth of Medicaid recipients, or 13 million low-income people, in the form of higher co-payments for services such as visits to physicians or hospitals.
"In response to the new premiums," wrote the CBO, "some beneficiaries would not apply for Medicaid, would leave the program or would become ineligible due to nonpayment. CBO estimates that about 45,000 enrollees would lose coverage in fiscal year 2010 and that 65,000 would lose coverage in fiscal year 2015 because of the imposition of premiums. About 60 percent of those losing coverage would be children."