Spending Bills on Tap

Appropriators will be working on several tracks this week in their continuing push to complete the 13 FY97 appropriations bills so Congress can leave town for the year.

Having had mixed success last week, Republican leaders this week hope to complete work on as many of the appropriations bills on the Senate floor, and finish as many House-Senate conferences on the measures, as possible. But at the same time, they will be hedging their bets by crafting an FY97 omnibus funding measure to cover the appropriations bills that they will not be able to finish as individual measures by the start of FY97 on Oct. 1.

President Clinton so far has signed just two of the appropriations measures, the FY97 Agriculture and District of Columbia appropriations bills. Congress also has sent Clinton conference reports on the FY97 Legislative Branch and Military Construction appropriations bills. Conferees last week completed work on the conference reports on the FY97 Transportation and Defense appropriations bills, and the House passed the conference report on the FY97 Energy and Water appropriations bill.

Clinton's decision whether to sign the Defense spending bill could be crucial, since many Democrats say money from that measure should be transferred to domestic priorities. The nearly $245 billion Defense appropriations bill is $9.4 billion more than Clinton requested. However, House Appropriations Chairman Livingston last Friday said Clinton should not propose cutting defense spending to boost funding for key domestic programs.

Conferees also hope this week to finish work on the FY97 Foreign Operations and VA-HUD appropriations bills. The Foreign Operations bill is hung up over funding for population control programs, while the Senate just passed its version of the VA-HUD measure Sept. 5. Senate Democratic aides say Senate Labor and Human Resources ranking member Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., will block the VA-HUD appropriations conference report if it does not include key amendments that passed both chambers dealing with mental health parity, 48-hour hospital stays for new mothers and health benefits for children suffering from spina bifida whose parents were exposed to Agent Orange.

House GOP leaders continued to resist embracing the mental health parity amendment, but, as one Senate Democratic aide said, "There won't be a VA-HUD bill unless mental parity is on it."

Meawhile, appropriators this week also may unveil the details of an FY97 omnibus funding bill that will become the basis for final appropriations negotiations with the Clinton administration. The bill will combine unfinished appropriations measures, with the fine points hashed out with the Clinton administration.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., last week said he hopes GOP leaders can meet with White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta this week to discuss the omnibus bill.

The following is an overview of other legislative activity expected on Capitol Hill this week:

The Senate today is expected to continue considering its FY97 Interior appropriations bill, on which debate began Friday, although no roll call votes are scheduled until Tuesday morning.

Also due for Senate floor debate this week are the Senate's versions of the FY97 Commerce-Justice-State and Labor-HHS appropriations bills.

Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee completed work on the Labor-HHS bill, which Democrats are expected to make a battleground over the issue of education funding levels. Senate Democrats are expected to offer a $3.1 billion education funding amendment when that bill reaches the Senate floor.

The Senate also may take up the conference report on the FY97 Energy and Water appropriations bill this week, or other appropriations conference reports if they are ready. However, the entire appropriations process in the Senate remains somewhat uncertain.

Lott last Thursday night pulled the FY97 Treasury-Postal appropriations bill from the Senate floor, saying too many political amendments had been offered. He threatened to pull any funding bill that becomes bogged down over amendments.

For his part, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Democrats plan to offer amendments that address their priorities.

A major snag holding up the Treasury-Postal bill last week was an amendment, offered by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Kennedy, outlawing so-called gag clauses in managed healthcare contracts that restrict what doctors can tell their patients about available treatments or referrals to specialists.

Wyden and Kennedy say they will continue this week to search for a vehicle for their amendment, and will try to attach it to any of the pending appropriations bills or to a continuing resolution, if one is needed.

Other possibilities for Senate action this week include legislation to revise the Magnuson Act fisheries law and the FAA bill.

The FAA reform package would reauthorize for one year the Airport Improvement Program, which Congress must approve by Sept. 30 or airports cannot receive any more grant money from the FAA.

The House already has passed its version of the legislation and a conference is expected to assemble quickly after Senate passage. Because the AIP program falls under contract authority, Congress must pass an authorization bill to release the funds, even if money has been approved by appropriators.

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