If Congress is still voting at Christmastime, it won't be the fault of appropriators.
Or at least that's the hope now that the Senate has approved a package of three spending bills that has jump-started the stalled appropriations process.
The Senate's 69-30 vote Tuesday for the package sets up the first appropriations conference since 2009, which could take place as soon as Thursday.
The House and Senate Appropriations chairmen have already been in talks to pave the way for a smooth conference, and they are expected to attach a short-term continuing resolution to the minibus package to stave off another shutdown fight.
The current CR expires Nov. 18, and Congressional aides predict the conference will push to extend government funding through mid-December. The move will buy time to devise a strategy that will likely include the passage of additional minibus bills.
After Tuesday's Senate vote, Majority Leader Harry Reid indicated that more spending bills were likely on their way to the floor.
"This experience that we have just completed — these appropriations bills — has worked out extremely well," the Nevada Democrat said.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said, "I urge my colleagues to continue in the current bipartisan spirit as we seek to move additional bills in the coming weeks."
The Senate is expected to take up a second minibus of three spending bills as soon as this week, Congressional aides said. The package will likely include three of the following four measures under discussion: the financial services and general government; Energy and water development; State and foreign operations; and Homeland Security appropriations bills.
As the minibus strategy moves along, one thing that remains unclear is the issue of policy riders. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer sent a letter to Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday urging the Ohio Republican to exclude "partisan, ideological policy riders in appropriations bills."
"While not all policy riders are objectionable, many of those included this year are not only controversial but blatantly partisan," the Maryland Democrat wrote in a letter signed by 182 of his Caucus colleagues.
While Hoyer did indicate openness to including some riders in spending bills, he said, "It is important that Republicans not risk a government shutdown by playing politics with appropriations bills."
To date, the House has passed six of the 12 annual spending bills and the Senate has passed four, including the three voted on Tuesday. Congress has needed to pass two short-term spending measures this year, including one that narrowly passed the House in September. The majority of Democrats voted against that measure, which was also opposed by 24 Republicans. Hoyer's letter, a Democratic aide pointed out, was also a political signal that he would not deliver votes Republican leaders might need to pass another spending bill if the GOP has a large number of defectors. Hoyer particularly wants riders taken off the table that would stall funding for the Affordable Care Act and weaken environmental regulations.
"They're going to have to work with us to get these appropriations bills passed because 24 Republicans voted against the CR in September," the Democratic aide said. "If they lose that many votes, can they still pass their bills? Or are they going to have to come to us for votes? If they do, we've made it clear: No controversial policy riders."
Partisan rancor had been growing in the House and Senate Appropriations committees in recent years and came to a head this year after Republicans won control of the House following the 2010 election.
Buoyed by the victory, Republicans sought to make good on campaign promises to cut spending and reduce the deficit, which — with the Senate still under Democratic control — made agreeing to appropriations extremely difficult.
Congress needed to pass seven short-term funding measures in order to keep the government operating past the Sept. 30, 2010, end of fiscal 2011 while a deal was negotiated by President Barack Obama, Boehner and Reid.
A final deal was ultimately struck in mid-April, but the string of partisan sparring delayed work on the fiscal 2012 spending process. Fiscal 2012 began Oct. 1.
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