Away from the din of the campaign, House and Senate appropriations staffers are quietly laying the groundwork for an ambitious wrap-up spending package in the lame duck.
The push is coming in part from Republican leaders, who are making the case that they want to clear the decks for the 114th Congress and the prospect of Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell becoming Senate majority leader.
“We need to do an omnibus bill funding the entire government for the rest of the year, and get that whole business behind us, so that come January, [McConnell] will have a clean slate rather than looking backwards to old fights that we could look forward to making positive changes," House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., told CQ Roll Call in a phone interview Thursday.
Rogers, who has been on the campaign trail with McConnell, said "discussions" have already begun with the White House about any additional funding changes that may be needed, but that the administration has yet to send over a list of formal requests.
“We’re already cleaning out the underbrush on an omnibus bill so that we can have it timely considered before we adjourn," Rogers said.
Aides say they have been working steadily over the last several weeks, compiling notes that would act as a starting point for formal House-Senate negotiations that could begin soon after the elections.
In many ways, the two chambers are not all that far apart on spending levels, suggesting there is a path to an omnibus deal if both sides make the efforts.
GOP leaders in both chambers are said to be on board with such an approach, but aides and lobbyists close to Appropriations committees said there is concern that the election results could upend the committees’ planning, particularly if party control of the Senate is not determined by Nov. 5.
There is also concern that if the GOP captures control of the Senate, rank-and-file lawmakers could be tempted to cut Senate Democrats out of the negotiating process by punting fiscal 2015 appropriations work into the new Congress and passing a second stopgap in the interim.
That’s an approach that was advocated by influential conservatives like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in September, but lobbyists warn that another stopgap would harm planning and procurement at government agencies.
The desire for a clean legislative slate in the new Congress could also prompt lawmakers to pass a full-year continuing resolution in the lame duck.
Appropriators are against the prospect of another stopgap.
Staffers on the 12 Appropriations subcommittees are said to have begun identifying differences in the various House and Senate bills. In addition, some aides have started to talk to their counterparts across the Rotunda about policy disagreements.
The work staffers have been able to do has been limited, however, because the committee chairmen have not yet given them consensus subcommittee allocations, which determine how much money can get doled out to different federal programs. Those numbers likely won’t be determined until after the election, according to aides.
“Conference negotiations take an incredible amount of manpower. Anything we can do to get our ducks in a row ahead of time is helpful,” said one GOP aide.
The House passed seven of the 12 annual bills this summer, and the chamber’s Appropriations Committee reported another four. The Senate, meanwhile, did not pass any of its bills off the floor. Senate appropriators reported eight bills from committee and released the other four as subcommittee drafts before the August recess.
If work begins next week, staffers would have just over a month to hammer out an omnibus before the current continuing resolution (PL 113-164) expires on Dec. 11.
That's a tall order, but a far more favorable timeline than last year, when staffers and top appropriators worked over the winter holidays to produce a government-wide fiscal 2014 spending package (PL 113-76) in less than three weeks.
Rogers and his Senate counterpart, Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., have made no secret of the fact that they’re looking to replicate that $1.1 trillion omnibus this year.
The undertaking should not be a “Herculean” one this time around, Rogers said last month, since the December budget deal (PL 113-67) ensured that House and Senate appropriators have been working off the same $1.014 trillion top line all year.
Instead, the biggest challenge for appropriators will likely be reconciling spending levels for the war-related spending account, which is not subject to the same spending caps, and determining funding levels to meet new threats such as the Ebola outbreak and the Islamic State terrorist group.