COEUR d'ALENE - Congress passed bipartisan legislation Tuesday that would restore rural school funding and permanently fix Medicare reimbursements to doctors.
Three of Idaho's four congressmen voted in favor of the bill despite the fact that it will add $140 billion to the national deficit.
First District Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, voted against the bill in the House because of the high price tag, but the Senate added language to the bill instructing Congress and all federal agencies to find offsets in the budget to pay for the bill.
"It was a very tough vote because it does add to the deficit initially," said Sen. Mike Crapo's spokesman, Lindsay Nothern. "But we did it with the promise that we will find offset dollars to pay for it."
Both programs are costly - totaling $214 billion - but are very necessary in Idaho, Nothern said.
At every town hall meeting in North Idaho, Sen. Crapo has been asked to restore the Secure Rural Schools funding, which was dramatically cut back during the last budget process in December.
Schools and counties with large areas of untaxable federal land receive the SRS funds from Congress to offset the money they once received from natural resource extraction.
All of Idaho's counties shared $28 million in SRS funding in 2014, but that was cut to $2 million for this budget cycle. The newly passed legislation restores that funding to its original levels for the next two years.
The bill also changed a formula the U.S. Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services uses to reimburse doctors for Medicare patients. The formula would have reduced those payments by 21 percent on Wednesday, so Congress acted Tuesday night to stop that reduction.
Nothern said Congress has been temporarily putting off that reduction for the past 17 years because doctors were not accepting Medicare patients anymore.
"Roughly half of the doctors in the country won't see Medicare patients now," Northern said. "That's why it was a must-do vote (Tuesday) night."
Nothern said opening up the Medicare law in that manner paves the way for Congress to review Medicare and other entitlement programs to make cost-saving changes.
"We opened the door to be able to look into more changes in all of the entitlement programs," he said. "Wealthier people may have to pay a little more for Medicare services."
Nothern said Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and the national deficit accounts for two-thirds of all federal spending, and now because it has opened up Medicare, Congress can now take a look at the other entitlements.
Nothern said tweaking Social Security is not likely to happen because it would be "political suicide," but there is a lot that can be done in other programs.
Crapo was unavailable for comment because he was in a conference committee that is meeting to finalize the budget, which is where cuts will be made to offset the $140 billion deficit in what has been termed the "doc fix" bill.
"While it was a tough vote, it solved some problems," Nothern said. "Overwhelmingly the counties really needed this money."