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Appropriators Finally Get Their Chance

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Appropriations Chairwoman Mikulski, left, and others on the committee will be busy setting allocation levels.

Reading local newspaper editorials from coast to coast, you might get the sense that Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., have averted a January government shutdown.

As is so often the case, that understates the next challenge: appropriating. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle decried the “meat ax” approach of the sequester, but it’s much easier to let bean counters at the Office of Management and Budget make across-the-board cuts than to actually do the work of surgeons with scalpels.

Assuming it reaches President Barack Obama’s desk, the budget deal sets a discretionary spending level of $1.012 trillion for the current fiscal year, with separate pots of money allocated for defense and nondefense functions. Both sides see relief from the sequester’s automatic spending cuts, which would have led to a $967 billion level when the next round of cuts would take effect. But it’s one thing to agree on how much to spend — it’s another to decide how to spend it.

Because Ryan and Murray largely split the difference between the House and Senate budget numbers, the appropriators will do likewise, actually going through the numbers to write the granular details of the omnibus. Appropriators who have been spinning their wheels all year have a tremendous incentive to deliver and keep the usual partisan fights over policy riders to a minimum. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy to line up different priorities across hundreds of government programs.

“We will be ready to go,” Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., said last week, before the House acted overwhelmingly to pass the budget deal, 332-94. “As soon as it passes one institution, we know that we’ll be able to tee up to get ready to do it.”

The Senate gaveled into session briefly on Sunday so that Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., could make the procedural moves to line up a key cloture vote to limit debate on the package Tuesday.

Mikulski met last week with House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., to discuss the way forward and allocation levels for each of the 12 appropriations subcommittees responsible for pieces of the catch-all omnibus bill, Rogers said.

The two spending chiefs weren’t the only ones meeting on Dec. 12. Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said at an afternoon news conference with fellow Democratic leaders that he had met earlier in the day with Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen. The New Jersey Republican took the gavel of the House’s Defense subcommittee following the death of Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla.

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