Subcommittee chairmen may be known as cardinals in appropriations parlance, but Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski called Tuesday's meeting of the Democratic and Republican spending chiefs on both sides of the Rotunda a "conversation" rather than a "conclave."
The Maryland Democrat left a meeting of the top four leaders of the congressional spending panels Tuesday afternoon sounding optimistic about getting an omnibus finished soon and averting a shutdown, but she conceded negotiators may need a short reprieve from the current deadline.
"So, there's no white smoke like we have a bill, however ... we've narrowed our choices," Mikulski said, indicating that the principals and staff are upbeat about the chances of getting an agreement.
"Our subcommittee chairmen have really done 90 percent of the work. We are now at 10 percent, but this last 10 percent, like in any negotiation is the toughest," Mikulski said.
Mikulski noted the "very difficult timetable" handed to the appropriators, who had less than a month between enactment of the bipartisan budget agreement hashed out between House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash.
"Our first job is to try to see what we can get done in the time allocated. I think there is a strong sense that we want to have this done next week and come as close to the CR as possible," Mikulski said. The current stopgap appropriations measure will expire on Jan. 15.
"That may take some flexibility in terms of a little bit more time, but we're not sure yet," she said.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Mikulski said that six bills were essentially completed. That list now includes the Defense measure. Mikulski said of the possibility of announcing a deal on Wednesday "a fading dream," adding it was possible the agreement could come over the weekend.
"An omnibus is big. It's a trillion dollars, and it's over 134 riders," Mikulski said. "It's not like we're doing one bill at a time."
"This is not a linear process. It's more like an amoeba," she added.