Appropriators Weigh Options

Fear Election-Year Roadblocks

Posted March 26, 2004 at 6:07pm

With only six months left before the 108th Congress is scheduled to adjourn, appropriators on both sides of the Capitol are floating creative ways to move the required spending bills to President Bush’s desk without forcing lawmakers to stay in town through Election Day.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is advocating the passage of several three-bill packages, or “minibuses,” while House Appropriations Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.) last week suggested putting together a broader omnibus bill early in the year instead of waiting until the last minute.

Lawmakers in both chambers, meanwhile, are exploring how they can ensure the Pentagon does not run out of money before the White House requests supplemental military funding next year.

Stevens said election-year politicking was eroding the number of days available to the Senate for considering appropriations and other legislation.

“I just don’t think we have time in the Senate to move 13 bills across the floor,” he said.

Stevens noted that there are roughly 85 potential legislative days left in the 108th Congress, but he said that number would be pared by Member requests that no votes be held on several upcoming primary election days as well as Mondays, Fridays or religious holidays.

To address the time crunch before the government’s fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, Stevens has toyed with the notion of bundling spending bills.

For example, the Defense, Homeland Security and military construction spending bills could make up one bill rather than the traditional three. Similarly, the Commerce, Justice, State and the judiciary bill, the Agriculture, rural development, Food and Drug Administration and related agencies bill, and the Interior bill could move as one entity.

Regardless of whether Senators combine several measures into one, Stevens said the Democrats’ current strategy of blocking all conference committees could derail whatever work he does to speed passage of the bills.

“We haven’t appointed a conferee yet this year,” said Stevens. “That’s going to hit the appropriations process like a Mack truck.”

Stevens also cautioned that his schedule would largely be determined by how quickly the House moves its spending bills and what form those bills take.

“We have to wait for the House,” said Stevens, noting that by tradition the House moves spending bills first.

He continued, “I’ve urged them to consider the time factor for us.”

House appropriators are well aware of the Senate’s scheduling problems and are always eager to point out that they rarely have trouble moving all 13 bills in a timely fashion.

At the same time, Young last week made a point of letting reporters know that he was mulling whether it might be best to move a larger omnibus measure early in the year, though he did not specify how many bills such a package might contain.

He pointed out that Congress is regularly forced to cobble together an omnibus package anyway, often at the end of the year with little time to adequately consider the details.

“If it’s going to be an omnibus, it’s going to be an omnibus. Why not do it early?” Young said.

The key to the package’s success, in Young’s opinion, would be the inclusion of the Defense measure.

“Once Defense passes the pressure is off the rest of the bills, so I would put Defense in the omnibus,” said Young.

Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Energy and water development, said he was leery of omnibus measures in general, though he would ultimately go along with whatever Young decided.

“Omnibus bills really bother me because there’s so much stuff that ends up in there,” said Hobson, recalling that in past years items would be inserted into his own bills that he wasn’t aware of until after passage.

Stevens suggested that Young’s idea would only work “if they could move a bill early, before the [national party] conventions, so we could be in conference after the conventions.”

But a Senate GOP leadership aide indicated that Young’s proposal had not yet gotten much traction in the Senate.

“I’m not sure he’s made much progress there,” the aide said, further noting that whether the bills move in small bundles or as an omnibus, subcommittees in both chambers would have to pass the bills separately first.

“Bundling them up is almost the easier part of this, because the first part is what is going to be in those bills before you bundle them,” the Senate leadership aide said.

The House Republican leadership is also unlikely to commit so early to any plan that does not involve moving the spending bills one at a time.

“I think the Speaker, by tradition, would like as much as possible to see regular order,” said John Feehery, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Indeed, both Young and Stevens have to wait for the House and Senate Budget panels to conference the fiscal 2005 budget resolution before devising the allocations that will govern how much money each subcommittee will have for programs under its jurisdiction.

Senate GOP aides said they anticipated the budget conference to be wrapped up sometime this week, before the House leaves for a two-week recess.

Regardless of how the bills are packaged, Members in both chambers are anxious to ensure that the war effort does not run out of money before the next supplemental — leading to talk of devising some type of Iraq funding “bridge.”

Along those lines, House Appropriations aides have already been told to compile a list of Pentagon programs that could run out of money before November.

Stevens said he was not worried about pushing an Iraq supplemental spending bill this year, as long as the Defense appropriations bill is enacted by Oct. 1.

Despite some Republicans’ desire to get the money for Iraq into the pipeline, the Senate GOP leadership aide said that would be difficult without the cooperation of the Bush administration, which has been reluctant to call attention to the mounting costs of the war during an election year.

“People in the administration keep telling us they have no intention of asking for one until next year,” said the aide. “[Appropriators] would have difficulty constructing an Iraq supplemental without an initial request from the administration.”