Final budget vote set for Feb. 1

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., has tentatively set a vote Feb. 1 on a $39.7 billion five-year deficit reduction package to finish action on the bill after a procedural maneuver by Senate Democrats late last month kicked the measure back to the House.

Final passage of the fiscal 2006 budget reconciliation bill would eliminate an unneeded distraction as President Bush prepares to send up his 2007 budget Feb. 6 -- and as House Republicans struggle with a race to choose a new majority leader that will dominate their attention in the coming weeks.

The House previously passed the measure 212-206 in a pre-dawn vote Dec. 19 before adjourning for the year. Vice President Dick Cheney cast the deciding vote to pass the bill in the Senate a few days later, but only after Senate Budget ranking member Kent Conrad, D-N.D., successfully struck three provisions from the bill as violations of the "Byrd rule."

House Republicans expect to narrowly approve the bill again, boosted by President Bush's State of the Union speech the night before.

But groups such as AARP, with 36 million members, are not conceding defeat, using the delay to aggressively target Republican moderates to oppose the measure. AARP and the Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities -- an umbrella organization representing labor and student groups and low-income advocates -- are rolling out new ad campaigns in the next two weeks highlighting provisions they argue will harm beneficiaries that were not fully understood prior to passage.

AARP is focusing on provisions that would make it harder for seniors to transfer assets in order to be eligible for nursing home benefits under Medicaid, which CBO said could deny long-term care to 120,000 seniors over five years.

Republicans argue the new rules will prevent wealthier seniors from qualifying for Medicaid benefits at the expense of those who need it most. But AARP argues such abuse is not widespread, and that the conference agreement would indiscriminately target low-income beneficiaries while leaving managed-care and pharmaceutical companies unscathed.

"It's one thing to cut the budget and reduce entitlement spending, which is a perfectly reasonable and responsible thing to do. It's another thing to do it in a way that creates such terribly bad policy," said David Sloane, AARP's senior managing director for government relations and advocacy.

The bill trims $2.4 billion over five years by tightening asset transfer rules. But instead of putting in place AARP-backed "hardship exemptions" that would enable grandparents to help with grandchildren's tuition or donate to charitable organizations and still qualify, the bill codifies current state exemptions, which allow for an appeals process. "It's language you could drive a truck through," an AARP staffer said.

ECAP is conducting a "January Final Offensive" campaign. "The Republican budget bill is like Count Dracula -- it can't stand the light of day," a planning document states. The groups are highlighting details of the bill culled from left-leaning groups like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. They are circulating a "worst provisions fact sheet" targeting language on Medicaid beneficiaries, student loans, and child welfare.

For example, the bill would require a passport or birth certificate to qualify for Medicaid, which according to the CBPP could put at risk elderly African-Americans, particularly in the South, since as many as one-fifth born around 1940 do not have a birth certificate because their parents were denied hospital access.

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