Senate Democrats are making a bid to change the playbook on considering federal spending.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that unlike in some recent years, he wouldn't try to work through what are often considered bipartisan spending measures first, like the Military Construction-VA measure or one funding the Department of Homeland Security, which are considered low-hanging fruit.
The result of that maneuver has been that Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, the Pentagon and some other departments and agencies get full bills enacted into law while others get stuck with a steady stream of stopgap measures.
"Those days are behind us," Reid said. "We are not going to be gamed by having the military programs funded at a much higher level than Head Start program, or NIH. We're not going to do that. We're through."
Reid and other Senate Democrats sounded emboldened following a caucus lunch meeting with National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, where Collins outlined what the Democrats called devastating effects of the budget sequester on the agency.
Reid said that Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., wants to move ahead with the typically more contentious Labor-HHS-Education measure and her own Commerce-Justice-Science bill, which Reid, perhaps in a nod to his own time as an appropriator, called the "Commerce-State-Justice" legislation.
"We need to have the fierce urgency of now to cancel sequester, and lift the caps and do it in a balanced way," Mikulski said. "As of today, we've marked up eight of our appropriations bill. We will be on the floor next week with an appropriations bill, but we are heading to Oct. 1, and we need a solution."
Democrats and Republicans alike have expressed optimism that Mikulski can bring back some semblance of order to the appropriations process.
That first fiscal 2014 measure is the Transportation-HUD proposal. The Appropriations panel adopted the bill 22-8, with six Republicans joining the Democrats in support. That also happens to be the minimum that would be required to get to 60 to break a filibuster by invoking cloture, assuming all 54 Democrats support it.
Another interesting coincidence: The Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray is the chairwoman of both the Budget Committee and the T-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee. Murray's regularly appeared on the Senate floor to push Republicans to allow a House-Senate conference on an agreed upon budget resolution, so she'll have the opportunity to link the specific issues of the spending bill to the bigger budget picture.
Murray opened her own remarks at the post-lunch news conference praising the bipartisan deal to stay away from a move to end filibusters of executive nominations.
"I am really hoping that that spirit of bipartisanship, the willingness to work together to make sure our country works for the American people, continues and obviously, as we move forward now to replace sequestration and manage our government, it is a great way to make that happen," Murray said.
In addition, the ranking member on the subcommittee is Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who has been among those supporting efforts to have a budget conference. Murray referred to that block of GOP senators after criticizing both a conservative bloc and the Republican leadership for objecting to the move.
"I know that Democrats aren't the only ones who want to go to conference to solve these issues. We've heard from a number of Republicans on the floor, in committee and in other places who don't want this obstruction to continue," Murray said, expressing optimism that conference could happen "soon."
Reid also said that he would not play ball with negotiations over the debt limit when that debate comes up later in the fall.
"If they're going to be driven to close down the government, go ahead and do it, because we are not going to compromise on the debt ceiling. Our economy is poised to take off. Please let us do that, but this isn't the last word you've heard from us" about the sequester, Reid said.