The clock is ticking on fiscal 2009, but how Congress moves the appropriations ball across the goal line before the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year is anybodys guess.
While the endgame remains unclear, aides from both parties and outside lobbyists agree that Democrats appear unlikely to achieve their stated goal of sending all 12 spending bills to President Barack Obama before fiscal 2010.
They have a lot of work to do on the Senate side, noted a Democratic House Appropriations Committee staffer last week.
The House pushed all of its spending bills through before the August recess, but the Senate has completed just four. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last month said it would be terrific if the Senate could pass four more before Oct. 1, and a Reid spokesman last week said Senate Democrats will try to move as many bills as possible before the end of the month.
That leaves Democratic leaders facing a menu of options that all involve the familiar continuing resolutions and omnibus spending measures that have become appropriations mainstays in recent years.
The biggest wild card remains health care reform. Senate momentum on a health care bill could consume precious floor time that otherwise would be spent on appropriations, although it remains to be seen whether the Senate Finance Committee negotiations will produce a bipartisan health bill before the Sept. 15 deadline imposed by Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).
But staffers say that even if the Senate spends all of September on appropriations, its doubtful that the chamber can move the last eight bills, conference all 12 with the House and send them to Obama by Sept. 30.
Given Democrats stated preference for returning the appropriations bills to regular order, lawmakers could try to complete as many of the spending bills as possible and send them to the White House individually. Some of us are going to get our bills done and signed into law before the end of the fiscal year, predicted one GOP House Appropriations staffer.
Under that scenario, the remaining bills could be rolled into a minibus that could be sent to the White House before the start of the new fiscal year. However, an omnibus comprising all 12 spending bills remains an option, albeit an unpopular one. Trading things across bills becomes a headache, the GOP aide said.
Another option is a short-term continuing resolution such as for one month which would give the Senate time to do its thing, a House Democratic aide said. However, other staffers caution that short-term CRs are a slippery slope that could just lead to additional delays.
In the meantime, House Appropriations staff on both sides of the aisle spent recess preparing to go to conference. For many, that meant studying the versions of the spending bills that have passed the Senate Appropriations Committee.
They are jumping the gun, complained one House Republican aide about talk of pre-conferencing bills that havent passed the Senate, where dozens of amendments to the remaining spending bills are likely to be considered on the floor. We dont know what the Senates going to push out.
Regardless of how it plays out, the appropriations wind-down is likely to stoke simmering tension in the House, where Republicans this summer complained about the Democrats decision to clamp down on the amendment process for the spending bills. Democrats defended the move as necessary for meeting their self-imposed deadline of completing the bills before August recess.
Theres a substantial degree of frustration, one Republican aide said. At this point, theres nothing more our guys can do until we conference.
When the time comes, the staffer says Republicans will press for a true conference like weve had traditionally and not just a five-minute gavel-in-for-show to meet the standard for the rule.