While July is often reserved for appropriations bills in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has set aside very little time to complete even one or two bills this month, despite the fact that the chamber’s conservatives appear in no mood to help smooth the way and President Bush is expected to veto the majority of spending measures that reach his desk.
“Is it a challenge? Absolutely,” said Tom Gavin, spokesman for Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), of the limited floor time slated for spending bills. “Is it an insurmountable challenge? Absolutely not.”
Reid has scheduled the next two weeks of floor debate on the Defense Department authorization bill, largely to reinvigorate the debate over how to end the Iraq War. Following that, Reid is expected to move to a bill reauthorizing the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
That could leave only a week, at best, for appropriations this month, with a limited amount of time in September to complete all 12 measures before the Oct. 1 start of the 2008 fiscal year. Congress is expected to recess, as usual, for most of August.
“Certainly, we wish there could be 45 days in July,” Gavin said. He added, “We’ll be ready to use whatever floor time we get.”
But whether Reid can get a lot completed in a short period of time is partly up to Senate Republicans, whose conservatives have threatened a battle royal over appropriations this year.
In fact, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is likely to come under pressure from some rank-and-file Republicans to rein in his right flank, which already is primed to slow down or outright block all of the 12 annual spending bills, according to Senate GOP sources.
“I assume that Sen. McConnell is going to sit down and say [to the conservatives], ‘Look, we can’t object to everything,’” said one Senate GOP leadership aide. “I think it would be in McConnell’s best interest if he took the lead on this.”
The aide added that Republicans would have a politically harder time opposing or holding up national security spending bills, such as those funding the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs. But convincing conservatives, such as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), to hold their fire on those bills may be difficult.
“I expect everything to be scrutinized, and there will be no free passes,” said one Senate GOP source. “There’s going be a fight at the outset on most of them, if not all of them.”
DeMint, in particular, has indicated he would object to debating appropriations bills until the Senate adopts the strict rules on earmarks that it approved as part of a larger lobbying and ethics bill earlier this year. Democrats have repeatedly objected to that request, saying they want to send the entire bill to conference with the House.
Democrats said the onus is on Republicans to make sure the government is funded before Oct. 1, particularly since several GOP Senators have slowed down or blocked consideration of nearly every major bill the Senate has considered this year.
Democrats know “that there are members of the Republican Party that will work to blow up this [appropriations] process,” said one Senate Democratic leadership aide. “And it’s going to be up to Sen. McConnell to decide whether he’s going to lead or kowtow to a handful of the members of his caucus.”
The Democratic aide added that Reid “will come to Sen. McConnell and the Republican leadership with a reasonable offer as to how to get through these bills.”
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said Democrats like Reid who criticized Republicans last year for slow or no action on appropriations are coming to terms with what being in the majority really means.
“Complaining is easy. Governing is tough,” Stewart said. “They’re finding reality is tougher than campaign rhetoric.”
Stewart added that Democrats took more than 100 days — including having one bill vetoed — to complete this year’s supplemental Iraq War spending bill.
“If it took that long to do one bill, then how long is it going to take to do the 12 regular appropriations bills?” he asked.
Gavin said the goal still is to send 12 individual measures to the president before Oct. 1. So far, the Senate Appropriations Committee has passed out eight bills and is poised to finish the final four by mid-month.
The House has passed out six of its bills that are ready for the Senate to take up.
Gavin said the Senate likely would take up the Homeland Security spending bill or military construction-Veterans Affairs appropriations bills first, but that the schedule has not yet been officially set.
While Reid has threatened to delay the August recess until Republicans allow him to send both the lobbying and ethics bill and a 9/11 commission recommendations bill to conference with the House, he has not yet made the same threat over appropriations.
“We’re not at that point,” said the Senate Democratic leadership aide.