Washington — The Republican-controlled Congress helped itself to a $3,100 pay raise on Friday, then postponed work on bills to curb spending on social programs and cut taxes in favor of a two-week vacation.
Both the House and Senate were in session after midnight Thursday, working on the tax and deficit-cutting bills at the heart of the GOP agenda.
"What it does is start to turn down the escalating costs ... for our children and our grandchildren. One of the things that we cannot leave to that next generation is a huge deficit that they can't afford," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said after enactment of a $50 billion deficit-reduction bill.
Democrats dissented, with one eye on the 2006 elections.
"The Republicans are taking food out of the mouths of children to give tax cuts to America's wealthiest. This is not a statement of America's values," said the Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California. "Democrats believe that together, America can do better," she said, invoking the party's new campaign slogan.
The cost-of-living increase for members of Congress - which will put pay for the rank and file at an estimated $165,200 a year - marked a brief truce in the pitched political battles that have flared in recent weeks on the war and domestic issues.
So much so that the issue was not mentioned on the floor of either the House or Senate as lawmakers worked on legislation whose passage will assure bigger paychecks.
Lawmakers automatically receive a cost of living increase each year, unless Congress votes to block it. By tradition, critics have tried to block increases by attaching a provision to the legislation that provides funding for the Treasury Department. One such attempt succeeded in the Senate earlier in the year, but the provision was omitted from the compromise measure moved toward final approval.
Transportation, housing funds
The overall bill provided $140 billion for transportation, housing and other programs. It cleared the House on a vote of 392-31. Senate passage was by voice vote, although final passage was delayed when an unexplained technical difficulty required a revote in the House.
Pay raise harmony aside, Republicans spent the day celebrating a party-line, post-midnight vote in which the House cleared legislation to reduce deficits by $50 billion over five years. The vote was 217-215, with all the Democrats who voted in opposition, along with 14 GOP rebels.
Acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt of Missouri said Republicans would make their tax cut bill the top item on the agenda when lawmakers return to the Capitol in December.
The House-passed measure attacks deficits by limiting spending for the first time in a decade on Medicaid, food stamps, student loans and other benefit programs that normally rise with inflation and eligibility.
The House GOP leadership had hoped to clear the measure a week ago. It was forced to retreat when Republican moderates rebelled, even after Hastert agreed to strip out a controversial proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
The Senate-passed companion measure calls for less deficit reduction, $35 billion over five years, but includes the ANWR provision.
The differences are expected to make it difficult for the House and Senate to reach a compromise by year's end, particularly since Republicans can't count on any Democratic support.
The tax bill presents difficulties of its own for a GOP majority struggling to translate last fall's election gains into this year's legislative achievements.
The Senate cleared a measure after 1:30 a.m. that calls for $60 billion in cuts over five years.
The measure drew bipartisan support, passing on a vote of 64-33. Its provisions would continue a series of existing tax breaks that otherwise will expire, and shelters 14 million upper middle-income families from higher taxes.
The White House has threatened a veto, citing a provision that raises taxes on oil companies.
The House has yet to pass a companion measure. When it does, the tax on oil companies is unlikely to be included, and it is likely to be jettisoned before a compromise measure reaches the White House.