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Senate Democrats May Skip Appropriations Season

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the House GOP is the major hurdle delaying the appropriations process.

Amid lingering differences with the House over government spending, Senate Democrats may not pass any appropriations bills before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) today said the major hurdle to completing the appropriations process is the House GOP, which has been pushing for spending cuts greater than what was agreed to under last year’s Budget Control Act. The House is moving its spending bills in accordance with the House Republican budget resolution, which sets spending at $19 billion less than the $1.047 trillion spending level agreed to in that measure.

“We passed last August legislation that is now law that set forth the spending for this country during the next fiscal year,” said Reid. “They refuse to adhere to that. So that makes it hard to do these appropriation bills.”

Asked if he thought any spending bills would be cleared by the Senate before the end of the fiscal year, Reid said: “Until the Republicans get real, we can’t do that because they have refused to adhere to the law that guides this country.”

A Senate Democratic aide said Democrats remain committed to try to take up some of the spending bills, but noted that in addition to overcoming Republican opposition over spending, the crowded Senate calendar will also make it a challenge. Another Democratic aide stressed that House Republicans should be blamed for forcing Congress down the path to a continuing resolution and possibly an omnibus-spending package.

House Republicans argue that the level stipulated in the spending law is a cap, which Congress can spend below but not go over.

Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) also believes the Senate runs the risk of not taking up any of the annual spending bills before the end of the fiscal year.

“It’s possible and it doesn’t speak well of the Senate,” Kyl said.

He said that the situation reminded him of a story he heard about a pessimist and an optimist.

“The pessimist says, ‘Things are so bad, they can’t get any worse’ and the optimist says, ‘Sure they can,’” Kyl said.

The situation is eerily similar to 2008, when Democrats decided to give up on passing most individual spending bills, partly to avoid election year votes on offshore drilling and partly because negotiating with then-President George W. Bush was fruitless.

Still, Senate appropriators remain hopeful, even though no spending measure has been mentioned as a candidate for action this month.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said his committee has been working hard to have the bills ready to go. To date, the panel has cleared nine of the 12 annual bills.

“I hope like hell” we do take up some of the bills,” he said. “After putting us all to work like this, I expect some of the bills to pass.”

Inouye’s comments come as the House Appropriations Committee has cleared 10 of the 12 annual bills, five of which have been passed by the full House.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, said she believes that “there will be at least three” appropriations bills to get through the floor before the end of the fiscal year, but she did not say which bills.

Her subcommittee’s bill is a possible candidate, along with the Homeland Security appropriations bill, the military construction and Veterans Affairs spending measure and Transportation and Housing and Urban Development bill, which typically garner significant support in Congress.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is the ranking member of Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, said she, too, believes Senate will manage to pass some appropriations bills.

“I do think we will pass some appropriations bills,” Collins said. “We’ve actually made pretty good progress in committee reporting bills. We’ve done most of the bills and most of them have come out with strong bipartisan votes, with only one of two exceptions.

“Last year we were able to do some of them at least and I thought that was good progress,” she continued, noting that it is up to Reid and Democratic leaders to decide if they want to move ahead with any of the bills.

Other Republicans were less optimistic and compared the situation to Senate Democrats’ decision not to pursue a budget resolution; something Republicans argue is a dereliction of Congress’ basic governing responsibilities.

Democrats reject the criticism and argue that the law passed last summer setting spending levels for next year basically has the same practical effect as a budget resolution, and therefore made going the through the budget process unnecessary.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said he doesn’t believe that Democrats want to have a spending debate, which could be fodder for gotcha campaign ads ahead of the November elections.

“If you start voting for the appropriations bills, you actually have to say publicly what you are for,” Blunt said. “Harry has been pretty open about [how] it would politically foolish to vote for the budget because then we say what we are for. I can’t believe that that is the given excuse but it is. And I think maybe the appropriations bills aren’t being dealt with for the same reason.

“If you don’t have a record, I suppose you take the chance of not having to run on your record,” Blunt continued. In contrast, he said, House Republicans have gone “on record” by passing a budget resolution and appropriations bills.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, said Democrats are also the victims of Senate Republicans, who he said have not been timid about flexing their procedural muscles to obstruct the legislative process.

“We are having trouble getting almost anything meaningful done, so it’s not surprising you can’t get anything to move or brought to the floor when the threshold is sixty votes for virtually anything,” Nelson said.

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