With a high-stakes election bearing down on them and partisan gridlock stalling most legislation in the Senate, Democrats have begun to acknowledge that the federal government will not be fully funded until after November and may even have to wait until 2011.
"That outcome is certainly a possibility," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin said of having to punt on spending bills until next year. The Illinois Democrat is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
"It depends on the cooperation of the Republicans," he added. "It may be that we'll just take what we need to take and do to make it through the election and come back afterward and tackle the big spending issues."
Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran also acknowledged the seeming inevitability of at least a lame-duck session after the elections to address government spending.
"That is not unlikely," the Mississippi Republican said. Asked about the possibility of postponing action until a new Congress is seated next year, he said: "It could happen again. It's hard to predict that far in advance."
The likelihood of a long delay was enhanced last week when Senate Republicans made the unusual move of injecting some partisanship into the committee process. Though the panel has traditionally avoided partisan displays, all 12 Appropriations Republicans signed a letter demanding that Democrats slash at least $20 billion from President Barack Obama's budget request.
Democrats on the committee adopted a proposal to cut spending by $14 billion; House Democrats have proposed a $7 billion cut.
Even though Senate Republicans and Democrats differ by only $6 billion out of more than $1.1 trillion in total spending, the GOP has seized on spending reductions as part of their election-year mantra and are expected to vote largely in lockstep against the Democratic bills.
[IMGCAP(1)]If the GOP also decides to attempt a filibuster over the $6 billion difference, it could be next to impossible for Democrats to pass anything but a stop-gap spending bill intended to keep the government funded in the interim.
At a testy Appropriations markup last Thursday, Durbin challenged Republicans' logic, saying he did not understand how they could write a letter demanding cuts while at the same time requesting earmarks totaling $1.3 billion.
"I don't understand how you can send us both of these letters," Durbin said. "I don't think this is consistent."
Democrats on the committee also hinted that they may also feel the need to abandon bipartisanship, given that they believe the Republican position makes it pointless to negotiate on what should go into each spending measure.
But Republicans said the Democrats' failure to pass a budget resolution this year makes their stance even more important, and they pointed to recent polls showing Americans are increasingly concerned about fiscal discipline.
"We need to change course. We need to rein in spending," Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), an Appropriations member, said Thursday. "And, as appropriators, we should lead by example. Supporting this bipartisan approach is a reasonable, initial step to curb spending."
While it is not uncommon for Congress to blow past its Sept. 30 statutory deadline for funding federal agencies, House and Senate appropriators seem to have gotten a later start than usual this year. None of the 12 annual spending bills has passed the House yet. Those bills are usually passed during the months of June and July. And the full House Appropriations Committee has not marked up any so far, even though all but three have passed through subcommittee.
Though the House still has plenty of time to complete its work on the bills, making progress in the Senate will be much trickier. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) does not plan to take up any spending measures before the monthlong August recess. When Members return in September, they will likely have no more than four to five weeks for legislating before heading home to campaign for re-election, Senators acknowledged.
"They can get hung up for lengthy periods of time on the floor, and we don't have a lot of time," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), an Appropriations member.
Election years have also increased the likelihood of appropriations work being pushed off to a new Congress and a new year. If Republicans gain seats in both chambers — as expected — they will have even less incentive to agree to Democratic demands during this Congress, sources acknowledged.
In past years, Members have found it politically unpalatable to leave town to campaign without at least passing funding for the Defense and Homeland Security departments, and those two bills are the most likely contenders for passage by both chambers before the midterms. The rest of the government would have to make do with a continuing resolution, on which Republicans could try to force further spending reductions — a situation that could raise the specter of a government shutdown.
Sen. Patty Murray, however, was optimistic last week that the work would get done in a timely manner. "I think it's really good progress that we're beginning to put the bills together so we have a solid framework of what we can do as soon as we're done with the election season," said the Washington state lawmaker, an appropriator and secretary of the Democratic Conference.