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Minibus Conference Shapes Approps

The Trial Conference Committee Will Dictate How the Appropriations Battle Will Play Out

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo
An Appropriations Committee aide said a rider that would weaken new regulations on mountaintop-removal mining is a priority for House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers.

What's a conference committee, again?

Leaders on the House and Senate Appropriations committees are slated to meet in a real conference committee for the first time since 2009 next week after the Senate passes its "minibus" appropriations bill, as it is expected to do.

The plan is a victory for Senate negotiators who fought for the minibus approach, which combines three or four appropriations bills into a single package.

And it has the potential to revive a dead art on Capitol Hill. While they are the traditional staple of legislating, conference committees have by and large disappeared during the partisan battles of the past few years. Even when they have been used, many of them have essentially consisted of political theater to mask behind-the-scenes leadership negotiations.

But it's only a trial. How smoothly it goes will shape how Congress tackles the rest of its appropriations bills.

If House and Senate negotiators iron out the differences of the two minibuses relatively easily, the rest of the appropriations bills could also be passed by minibus.

If the process bogs down, the impasse will give credence for wrapping up everything else in an omnibus.

"If and when the Senate passes that minibus they're considering, hopefully Tuesday, we'll immediately go to conference on those bills, those three. And then we'll see what happens," House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said last week.

Leaders might attach a continuing resolution to the final product and could add as many as two other appropriations bills to the package.

The minibus approach, combined with a substantive conference committee, will blunt a push by House conservatives for an open rule on all appropriations bills through the end of the year.

"Conference reports are not amendable. That's the rules of the House," Rogers said.

Rogers can replicate the minibus-to-conference process for even the six appropriations bills not passed on the House floor, using the bills passed through the Appropriations Committee as the starting negotiating position for the GOP.

Republican Reps. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Mick Mulvaney (S.C.) said last week they were pessimistic about getting an open rule on any appropriations measures for the rest of this year.

"We haven't gotten a full, solid commitment to it," Mulvaney said in reference to a Flake-led letter to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) pushing for transparency. "I think in this town, that means we're not going to get it." Conservatives say they'll still push for openness, though, especially for bills that haven't yet been to the House floor.

But even a closed or structured rule on the appropriations bills does not foreclose brinkmanship over policy riders.

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