The McCain Economy Bloc Hampers Old Senate Spending Tricks

The Senate was up to its old tricks Monday evening. It prepared to pass, without debate and under a procedure requiring unanimous consent, a federal infusion of $9 billion into state Medicaid programs under the pretext of Katrina relief. The bill, drafted in secret under bipartisan auspices, was stopped cold when Republican Sen. John Ensign voiced his objection.

The bill’s Democratic sponsors railed in outrage against Ensign, a 47-year-old first-termer from Las Vegas, Nev., who usually keeps a low profile. But he was not acting alone. Ensign belongs to, and, indeed, originated, a small group of Republicans who intend to stand guard on the Senate floor against such raids on the Treasury as Monday night’s failure. The group includes Sen. John McCain, who long has tried to wean Republicans from ever greater federal spending but attracted little support from GOP colleagues until recently.

Fear has enveloped Republicans who see themselves handing the banner of fiscal integrity to the Democrats. The GOP is losing the rhetoric war, even though Democrats mostly push for higher domestic spending, because Republicans, while standing firm against tax hikes, have also declined to cut spending. Fearing the worst in the 2006 and 2008 elections, Republican senators who would not be expected to do so are looking to McCain to lead the party back to fiscal responsibility.

The "emergency" Medicaid bill is a classic case of how government grows and spending soars. Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln, concerned by health problems of evacuees in her state of Arkansas, introduced a bill increasing Medicaid funds to the states. The Senate Finance Committee’s Republican chairman, Chuck Grassley, and its ranking Democrat, Max Baucus, drafted the scaled-down, $9 billion substitute and marked it for quick passage. No hearings, no debate, no trouble.

Grassley is an Iowa farmer considered a conservative when he came to the Senate 25 years ago. But like many lawmakers who may have stayed too long, Grassley plays the Washington game. "I remind colleagues," he said Monday night, "that we might end up actually adopting a proposal much more expensive than [this bill] if Sen. Lincoln offers her amendment." In other words, half of a bad proposal is better than the whole thing.

President Bush’s opposition to the Grassley-Baucus bill was meaningless. Bush could not kill the bill by objecting, but any senator could and Ensign did. Ensign noted that Congress had appropriated an extra $62 billion in the wake of Katrina. He pointed to the fact that the bill is a general Medicaid enrichment unrelated to hurricanes. It makes sure that 29 states scheduled for federal Medicaid cuts would be "held harmless" — that is, would not suffer a reduction. That list is headed by $78 million in extra funds for Alaska.

Baucus could hardly contain himself. He stormed that this bill "has nothing to do with the $62 billion, nothing whatever." Baucus would not yield to Ensign, so that he could explain that Medicaid funds could be taken from the $62 billion.

Baucus’s veins were popping, but he was self-controlled compared to the normally soft-spoken Lincoln. She seemed on the verge of tears, not only because of the evacuees’ health but from outrage that a deal had been broken. "I was asked in good faith to withdraw my amendment because nobody wanted to vote against it," Lincoln said. "Withdraw your amendment and we will work out a good bipartisan deal. Chairman Grassley and Sen. Baucus did just that."

After Lincoln’s tirade, another member of the Republican economy bloc — Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire — responded by coolly analyzing the bill’s excessive spending. Also on the floor were two other bloc members: freshman Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and McCain. Although previously out of step with his party on tax cuts, McCain is aligned against tax increases as "a cop-out" to avoid budget trimming.

Among others in the bloc are the two South Carolina senators, Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint. Graham wants this group to join the House’s conservative Republican Study Committee in a "full frontal assault" on runaway spending. The culture of Washington is against them, but stopping one $9 billion outlay is a start.