Omnibus Seen Gaining Steam

Bundling Bills May Be Only Option

Posted June 15, 2004 at 6:14pm

In yet another sign that Senate Republican leaders are abandoning hope of passing a bicameral budget resolution this year, Senate Budget Chairman Don Nickles (R-Okla.) has advocated passing an omnibus spending package by the end of July as a way to avoid procedural snags posed by the lack of a budget framework.

Saying he was in talks with Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Nickles said that both men “recognize that if we don’t get a budget, we’ll have to do all the appropriations bills in one package. … My anticipation is to get them all together so we can work on them the last few weeks of July.”

Nickles said pushing an omnibus spending bill, rather than the traditional 13 individual spending measures, is the only way to control spending on the Senate floor if there is no budget resolution.

“It’s not a very good way to manage the appropriations process, but it may be the only way,” said Nickles.

The notion that it’s not the best approach to governance is one of the few on which Nickles and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, will agree if the omnibus plan moves forward.

Byrd “believes it’s a bad way to legislation,” said his spokesman Tom Gavin. Gavin said that Byrd has referred to omnibus appropriations bills as “the Frankenstein monster of the legislative process.”

Stevens did not directly address Nickles’ proposal, but he reiterated his belief that the only way to pass all 13 bills before Oct. 1 — the beginning of the federal government’s fiscal year — is to pass them as groups of bills.

“Right now, everything points to having two, three, four bills at a time” on the floor, Stevens said.

The bicameral budget blueprint, which passed the House last month, would set total discretionary spending at $821 billion and would allow budget hawks to bring procedural “points of order” against any Senate floor amendment that seeks to push spending above the committee-allotted formula that covers each of the 13 annual spending bills.

Given that Nickles has failed to convince four centrist Republicans to vote for the budget resolution, however, Senate will most likely have to move forward with appropriations bills using a $814 billion discretionary spending cap that was set by last year’s budget.

If appropriations bills are passed one at a time under that scenario, Senators seeking to add money to the measures would need only 50 votes to prevail. Only once the cumulative effect of the spending increases threatened to exceed the $814 billion cap would Nickles be able to bring a point of order, which requires 60 votes to overcome.

Those circumstances could jeopardize funding for any number of federal programs, depending on the order in which the 13 annual appropriations bills come to the floor.

Because an omnibus bill would already cost $814 billion or more, points of order could be used to eliminate spending increases above the cap.

Nickles acknowledged that any omnibus bill may actually come closer to the $821 billion in the bicameral budget resolution. However, Stevens has said he would likely have to declare as much as $7 billion of defense funding “emergency” spending that does not fall within the $814 billion budget cap.

Still, Nickles said he would vigorously oppose spending increases for other domestic programs.

“I’ll be very energetic in trying to hold down the growth of spending,” said Nickles, who noted there are other procedural budget tools at his disposal.

Meanwhile, Stevens announced Tuesday that his committee would likely postpone scheduled action on the Defense appropriations bill this week.

“I will reschedule when I think I can take a bill out of committee, to the floor and to conference,” Stevens said.

Stevens said the postponement was due to the current protracted Senate floor debate on the Defense Department authorization bill. Stevens said he originally scheduled the bill under the assumption that the Defense authorization would be done by the end of this week and that he would then be able to bring the measure to the floor next week, prior to the July Fourth recess.

Because he anticipates that debate on the Defense authorization will last until “late next week,” Stevens said he didn’t want to reveal his $400 billion-plus Defense appropriations bill unless it could move quickly through the legislative process.

“You can never leave a defense bill hanging out there,” Stevens said.

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security, said he would likely move forward with his markup this morning.