A political bidding match between Senate Republicans and Democrats over education funding brought the FY97 appropriations process to a virtual standstill Tuesday. The gridlock leaves little doubt GOP leaders will abandon consideration of outstanding contentious appropriations bills in order to focus attention on moving an FY97 omnibus spending package.
"If we can't come to a rational, reasonable solution we may have to go to that," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Tuesday evening. He said Republicans would try to work with Democrats and the White House to fashion an omnibus bill combining the remaining appropriations measures that have little chance of passing alone or getting signed by the president. Likewise, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said it "is looking more and more likely" that Congress will stop work on individual funding bills and turn immediately to the omnibus appropriations package.
The process bogged down Tuesday when Senate Republicans proposed adding $2.3 billion in funding for education programs either to the FY97 Labor-HHS appropriations bill or to some other spending measure. Their proposal came in response to efforts by Senate Democrats to attach an amendment appropriating an extra $3.2 billion for education to the FY97 Interior spending bill that was on the Senate floor. Both sides planned to use spectrum auction sales to pay for the increases.
After the two sides failed to reach agreement, Lott pulled the Interior bill from floor consideration, the second appropriations bill he has pulled in less than a week. He pulled the FY97 Treasury-Postal appropriations bill last Thursday, blaming Democrats for offering too many non-germane amendments.
GOP leaders Tuesday acknowledged the motivation behind their education amendment was purely political. "I'm telling you it's all politics," Lott said. "We can either get our brains beat out politically, or we can get in there and mix it up with them. And that's what we're going to do."
But Democrats charged Republican leaders were preventing them from offering their amendment and criticized Republicans as hypocritical for seeming like they wanted more spending for education after proposing deep cuts in that area. "The Republican position on education is in complete disarray," charged Senate Labor and Human Resources ranking member Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
Added Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, sponsor of the Democratic amendment to add education funding to the Interior bill, "Now, they want to play catch-up-all."
The Senate maneuvering came with just two weeks left to go until the start of FY97 on Oct. 1.
So far, just four of the 13 FY97 appropriations bills have been signed into law. President Clinton Monday signed the FY97 Military Construction and Legislative Branch appropriations bills; he earlier had signed the FY97 Agriculture and District of Columbia appropriations bills.
The next measure ready to go to the White House is the FY97 Energy and Water appropriations bill, following the Senate's 93-7 passage of that conference report Tuesday.
House-Senate conferees last week also completed the conference reports on the FY97 Transportation and Defense appropriations bills, and both chambers are set to consider the Transportation measure today.
Clinton is expected to sign the Energy and Water and Transportation bills, but what will happen with the Defense measure, which is $10 billion more than the administration requested, is unclear.
Another bill that is far along in the process is the FY97 Foreign Operations appropriations bill, on which conferees reached tentative agreement Tuesday night, according to a statement from House Treasury-Postal Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jim Lightfoot, R-Iowa. And this morning, conferees are slated to meet on the FY97 VA-HUD appropriations bill.
Following Tuesday's Senate dustup, Democrats vowed to continue to offer the education funding amendment on as many bills as they can, including the omnibus spending package.
Republicans, for their part, were expecting a list to be delivered Tuesday evening from the White House detailing the administration's bottom-line priorities on spending levels for certain areas, including education.White House officials Monday asked GOP appropriators to boost FY97 domestic spending by $6.5 billion beyond the amount Republicans had planned to spend on key administration initiatives. They asked that defense spending be placed on the table for possible cuts to help pay for the proposed increase in domestic programs. GOP leaders indicated Tuesday they would not accept any "substantial" cuts in defense spending, but no level was specified.