White House Mulls Last Approps Waltz

Posted July 22, 2008 at 6:49pm

While publicly urging Congress to “get its work done,” senior Bush administration officials privately say they are resigned to the prospect of Congress punting on most of the spending bills and passing a continuing resolution into the next administration.

“I don’t know that we’ve got a strong preference” for how lengthy the CR is, said one senior White House official. “Even if they pass one into November, I expect they’ll just come in and extend it anyway.”

Nevertheless, Bush aides did not explicitly promise that President Bush would sign a CR, and they noted the details of a deal must still be hashed out. Their budget endgame strategy for including Bush’s priorities in a year-ending arrangement is still not completely formulated.

With the markets in a state of constant volatility and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac on the precipice of a complete meltdown, administration officials have been heavily focused recently on banking legislation, not the appropriations bills.

But while Bush aides will press the president’s priorities, the White House knows that Bush in the end will have to work with a CR that leaves future spending decisions for the next president — at least on the non-defense related spending bills.

“The one job Congress really has is to finish the 12 must-pass appropriations bills,” said one senior administration official. “If they fail to do that, a CR is what has to happen.” This source noted that the administration is still pressing for regular order — but all but acknowledged time has probably run out.

“They’ve got something like 22 legislative days left — but who’s counting,” the official joked.

Democratic leaders in recent days have suggested they may pass the Defense-related spending bills and substitute the rest of the measures with CR. There has been talk among Democrats of attaching the CR to the Defense bill in the hope this would prevent Bush from vetoing it. But Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Defense appropriations subcommittee, called that idea “terrible” on Tuesday and said he would oppose it, CongressNow reported.

Democrats are clearly banking on their presumptive presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, (D-Ill.) getting elected and signing their wish lists into law next year.

The senior White House official noted that Republicans generally are agreeable to continuing resolutions because they keep spending from rising.

“It ‘s not a big problem from the Republican perspective,” this source said.

The official said the White House was “not in control” of how long the CR lasts.

White House aides have not yet considered an idea floated by some Republicans for Bush to veto a CR if it extends a moratorium on offshore drilling.

Arguing that with gas prices so high the country now backs expanded exploration, a senior House Republican aide said the GOP leadership plans to make drilling the “number one issue” surrounding the CR. But he said the leadership has not yet decided whether to press Bush to veto the CR if Democrats prevent them from ending the drilling ban.

One reason may be that, with the structure of a CR unclear, it is uncertain how many Republicans will go to the wall for expanded drilling. One GOP leadership aide acknowledged that if the CR is linked to the Defense bill and Republicans feel they are forced to choose between the troops and drilling, it is unclear how the Conference would react.

Democrats accuse Republicans of seizing on the drilling moratorium for political gain. One senior House Democratic aide noted the ban had previously been extended by Bush.

“It’s a different political environment, so simply continuing their policies may no longer be acceptable,” he quipped.

“The House Democratic leadership is blocking the will of the American people,” a GOP aide responded.

Bush aides say they remain uncertain where some of Bush’s top priorities for the year, including the Colombia free trade agreement, will fit in as the endgame plays out.

They remain hopeful that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will try to move the trade deal, making the case that items she said she wanted to see pass first — like extended unemployment benefits — are in fact becoming law. But they say they have not gotten a clear indication from Pelosi about what her intentions are on the measure.