RAY SUAREZ: With a tight vote on a hotly contested budget bill expected in the Senate this morning, Vice President Cheney returned from an overseas trip to cast the deciding vote, if necessary. As debate over the $40 billion budget-cutting package got under way, the ideological divide was clear. Minority Leader Harry Reid lambasted Republicans for supporting a bill that cuts social programs.
SEN. HARRY REID: There are many proud Americans, Mr. President, who are people with disabilities and low incomes; they need our help. This legislation cuts the ability to help them!
RAY SUAREZ: The bill would trim spending on Medicare, Medicaid, student loans and farm supports. But Republican Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg argued that there have been few chances lately to slow the rate of growth in government spending.
SEN. JUDD GREGG: This year, it's the only chance that Congress is going to go forward in the last eight years, the only opportunity in the last eight years to actually step forward and do something about deficit spending on the entitlement side.
VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: The vice president votes in the affirmative.
RAY SUAREZ: As the vote was called, Vice President Cheney appeared in the chair --
VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: -- is agreed to.
RAY SUAREZ: Another showdown minutes later when Republicans moved to end debate and force a vote on the massive defense spending bill on 2006. It includes funding for the Iraq war, and $29 billion for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
SEN. BILL FRIST: I urge my colleagues to consider the consequences of the votes they're about to cast and the profound reverberations it will have on America's economic and national security. A vote for cloture is, indeed, a vote for our troops.
RAY SUAREZ: But a controversial provision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling was attached to the defense bill that rallied Democrats and a handful of Republicans to block the final vote.
SPOKESMAN: The motion is not agreed to.
RAY SUAREZ: Democrats said attaching the arctic oil provision to a defense bill was a shameful act that bent Senate rules. Connecticut's Joe Lieberman:
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: If we allow ourselves to be intimidated into casting a vote here that we don't really believe is right, we're not doing our job, and we're setting a terrible precedent that will haunt the Senate for years come.
RAY SUAREZ: Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, who was responsible for the provision and has pushed for drilling in his home state for close to 25 years, was defeated.
SEN. TED STEVENS: Mr. President, I hope the good Lord will help me hold my temper, and I think that will be the case.
RAY SUAREZ: The Senate is likely to pass a continuing resolution to fund the military through next year. Meanwhile, there was little progress on renewing the Patriot Act, the post 9/11 law expanding the government's anti-terrorism police powers. The act expires Dec. 31. Democrats and a few Republicans have said parts of the law should be extended but not made permanent to allow more debate its most contentious parts.
New Hampshire Republican John Sununu is one of four Republicans refusing to support the current bill.
SEN. JOHN SUNUNU: This isn't a question of change or weakening or undermining the tools; it's just a question of providing a balance where your right to a judicial review or civil liberties are concerned.
RAY SUAREZ: The Bush administration has urged the Senate to act quickly, insisting America will be in greater danger if the measure is allowed to expire. Here's Attorney General Alberto Gonzales:
ALBERTO GONZALES: If the impasse continues, when Americans wake up on Jan. 1, we will not be as safe.
RAY SUAREZ: This evening, Senate Republican leaders worked furiously to reach a deal with the act's dissenters. If there is agreement, the Senate could vote as early as tonight.
RAY SUAREZ: Some analysis now of today's developments and the politics on Capitol Hill. For that, I'm joined by Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report; she watches the Senate and is the report's managing editor.
Well, we began the day with a very close vote on the budget resolution. What was in it, and what was creating all the storm over that vote?
JENNIFER DUFFY: Well, there were a number of things in it. One, it made some cuts to social programs, like Medicaid, Medicare, and student loans. It raises revenues through pension reform, which isn't quite a done deal yet. Democrats really found the cuts to programs problematic.
You know, student loans -- the way they did it, though, was to give a little and take a little. I mean, they gave them a new program for low-income students who are studying math, science, and certain foreign languages. They changed the payment system from a variable interest rate to a fixed interest rate, as a way of saving money. Who knows how this will come out in the wash, but Democrats don't want to touch any of these programs.
RAY SUAREZ: And, yet, at the same time, both the House and Senate approved continuing with tax cutting, and some of the Democratic minority pointed out that if you make these small cuts while you continue to cut taxes, you're not cutting the deficit at all.
JENNIFER DUFFY: That's right. I mean, the message coming from Democrats today, this afternoon particularly, is all Republicans succeeded in doing was paving the way for additional tax cuts for the rich.
However, you know, the Senate for once spent a lot of last week, trying to extend the president's tax cuts in certain areas like capital gains and failed. And the majority leader has tabled it until January.
It's very unclear that they will actually succeed in getting these tax cuts through, but I think you can expect Democrats for the next month to just pound this message home.
RAY SUAREZ: They also needed Vice President Cheney to break that 50-50 tie. They must have had a very good nose count if they brought him back from Pakistan knowing they needed him.
JENNIFER DUFFY: I think they did have a good nose count. I think that the Republicans -- there were five Republicans who defected. They knew who they were. They knew that their minds were not going to be changed. They were by and large the Senate moderates, plus Sen. DeWine of Ohio, Sen. Smith of Oregon, and that these were minds that were not going to be changed.
They also knew the Democratic caucus is extremely unified, and there weren't going to be many defections there. As it turned out, there were none, so they did in fact need the vice president.
RAY SUAREZ: Just a few minutes later, they moved to the vote on ending cloture for the ANWR and defense appropriation bill. How did that go?
JENNIFER DUFFY: Well, you know, it's interesting. The defense appropriations bill was moving forward until this weekend, when Ted Stevens, who's from Alaska, and the chairman of the Defense Appropriation Subcommittee put the ANWR provision in the defense bill.
What it seems he tried to do was create a really gut-wrenching vote for members. You know, in this bill is the money to fund the war in Iraq. It's the money for troops. It's money for equipment. Also in this bill is money to pay for some of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
And in fact, the ANWR provision, which would generate revenue ultimately, that revenue was earmarked, so to speak, for Katrina. So this was a gut-wrenching vote.
But you saw a lot of members not fall for it. They were willing to cast the difficult vote against cloture, in some cases to make a point, as you saw Sen. Lieberman make that point.
RAY SUAREZ: But what happens now? I mean, the army doesn't run out of bullets and boots starting Jan. 1.
JENNIFER DUFFY: No, there are a couple of options here that they have. They can pass another continuing resolution that funds the Department of Defense through, you know, perhaps January, when Congress comes back from its recess.
Or the Senate can strip the ANWR provision out, send it back to the House, so they can cross their "t's" and dot their "i's" and strip the ANWR provision out on their side, and all is well with the world. But they need to actually take a vote to strip the provision. There is some resistance within the Republican conference to do that.
RAY SUAREZ: Sen. Stevens, for his part, said he would resist any effort to strip ANWR out. Can this be done over the objections of the chairman?
JENNIFER DUFFY: It can be done over the objections of the chairman. Living with the chairman for the next six months might not be fun.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, the ANWR provision was one of several things that don't really have that much to do with defense. When the Democrats during the debate said that it was odd that it was stuck in there, were they on solid ground when you look back at recent history?
JENNIFER DUFFY: Well, they were on some solid ground, but the point they were making is that it wasn't really germane to defense. One of the ways that Stevens tried to do that was have it pay for some of the funding for the Katrina rebuild that's in that bill.
Now, if Democrats thought they were on solid ground, they would have imposed or tried to get a vote on something called Rule 28, which would have stripped it as being non-germane. They didn't have the votes to pass the rule so they never brought it up.
RAY SUAREZ: Finally, the Patriot Act, the clock is ticking. The senators want to leave Washington, but they also don't want to leave and have the act expire at the end of the year -- whose play now?
JENNIFER DUFFY: This is a very thorny issue. In some ways, it's the president's play. I mean, the president has laid down the marker that he will not sign a temporary extension of this bill, which is what many in the Senate want, you know, extend it for three more months, let them come back in January, iron out their differences, and try and pass a longer-term bill. The president said he wouldn't sign that bill.
So now it's about who blinks. Now, there are four Republicans standing in the way of passage. They're working very hard to strike some sort of compromise with them. They either vote on it tonight or take a big political risk in letting it expire.
RAY SUAREZ: You say the president has put down a marker. Majority Leader Frist has also been very resistant to those extensions, hasn't he?
JENNIFER DUFFY: He has been resistant to those extensions. Part of that I think is coming from the White House. Part of that I think is the politics of this issue, that he doesn't want to do this halfway. He knows that Democrats don't truly want to let this bill -- this act expire. And most Republicans don't want it either. I think he's trying to put a good deal of pressure on these four members to change their mind.
RAY SUAREZ: So could the Senate conceivably still be here at the end of the week, Saturday, Sunday, Christmas Day?
JENNIFER DUFFY: I think that would be very unusual. I think that they want to get out of town. I think all of us who watch the Senate would like them to get out of town. No, I think tonight, maybe tomorrow morning, is it.
The House is in pro forma session tomorrow, where they want to tie up all the loose ends. Beyond that, maybe you'll get them back next week.
RAY SUAREZ: Jennifer Duffy, thanks for being here.
JENNIFER DUFFY: Thank you.