Senate aims to avoid catch-all spending bill

After the House passed its 12th and final appropriations bill early Sunday, the focus turned to the Senate, which has passed only one.

The end of the fiscal year looms Sept. 30, and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., late last week outlined an ambitious post-recess schedule that leaves little time for moving spending bills across the floor individually.

Reid plans to try that in the first two weeks of September, but in the five weeks between Labor Day and Columbus Day, Reid said the chamber plans to tackle everything from completing the fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill to a vote on overriding President Bush's veto of legislation authorizing embryonic stem cell research. And somewhere in between, he said, the Senate would pass a continuing resolution to keep agencies operating beyond the end of the fiscal year.

The compressed schedule also includes the farm bill, patent reform, the D.C. voting rights measure, judicial nominations and conference reports on energy, children's health insurance, higher education and FDA reauthorization.

"In the coming months, the challenges we will face will be every bit as tough, and every bit as important, as those we've faced to date," Reid said on the floor late Friday. Reid has said the Senate will be in session at least until Nov. 16.

The lack of progress on appropriations raises the prospect of a year-end omnibus bill, which Republicans would relish as evidence the Democrats have gone back on their pledge of open government. It also gives Bush, who has promised to veto Democratic spending bills because they exceed his overall request by $23 billion, the opportunity to criticize the size of the overall package, whereas by passing individual bills, Democrats could play up programmatic increases for such priorities as law enforcement, special education, medical research and homeland security.

An omnibus would provide "a lot of fodder to use outside the Beltway," a Senate GOP leadership aide said. Preferable to an omnibus for Democrats might be a series of "mini-buses" by which Democrats could combine politically sacrosanct spending on veterans or homeland security with measures with less bipartisan support, like the Labor-Health and Human Services spending bill.

Reid has said the chamber will take up the nomination of former House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, to be Office of Management and Budget director as the first order of business when the chamber reconvenes, and then the Senate will turn to the $109.2 billion Military Construction-Veterans Affairs measure next. That measure could pass quickly, and Democratic leaders aim to complete one or two more spending bills by the end of the following week.

Last week, Reid said the $104.7 billion Transportation-Housing and Urban Development bill was a candidate for floor action, and its increased funding for highway infrastructure could boost its chances in the wake of the Minneapolis bridge collapse.

Republicans are looking to challenge Democratic spending on this bill in particular. A spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said he plans to offer amendments redirecting funds for "pork" projects to repairing existing infrastructure.

Reid also said earlier in the week the Energy and Water spending bill could be on the floor, and aides added that the State-Foreign Operations bill was a possibility.

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