Negotiators race the clock to finish spending legislation

House Democratic leaders hope to finish work on the remaining appropriations bills in roughly the next two weeks, and could tee up an omnibus package, but Senate Democrats still hope to finish some of the bills one at a time.

"They want to get all of [the bills] done by about Nov. 16th. ... before Thanksgiving," House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha, D-Pa., said Tuesday. "If that happens, who knows?"

Appropriations sources on and off Capitol Hill confirmed that the seven remaining subcommittees that have not had their bills sent to President Obama have been instructed to wrap up any undecided issues in the bills by about Nov. 13 and be ready for the floor by about Nov. 16, which could be the week the House takes up an omnibus package to wrap up the fiscal 2010 appropriations process.

The timing is expected to depend on how the House handles the healthcare debate, as well as the subcommittees' ability to complete the work in time, according to senior Republican aide. This source added that deadlines have been set like this before, only for nothing to happen.

To date, Congress has sent Obama five of the 12 annual spending bills. The House has finished work on all 12 bills, while the Senate has gotten through just seven. Last week, Congress passed a continuing resolution funding the government at fiscal 2009 levels through Dec. 18.

Murtha's comments come as Appropriations staffers have been working to square differences on the remaining bills. The fiscal 2010 Defense measure and the fiscal 2010 Transportation-HUD bill -- which were approved by both chambers -- are waiting for a conference to be set once House and Senate negotiators are ready.

"Most of these bills are pretty well done," Murtha said. "We got most of the big stuff worked out."

Murtha added that he hopes conferees can meet next week to agree to a compromise measure and send it to the floor and on to the Senate.

"I think next week we've got a chance," Murtha said, adding that the measure could include a provision to increase the debt limit. "We've got to pass a debt limit increase; everybody knows that."

House Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Olver, D-Mass., said he was skeptical that the time frame would be met given that the Senate still wants to try to pass more bills.

"I am not taking too seriously the intermediate stages along the way until we begin to see whether they are actually going to produce any more of those bills," Olver said.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said Tuesday he hopes to pass as many individual bills as possible in the Senate, but he conceded time is running out.

"We are trying to take up two bills this week, and next week a couple more," Inouye said.

The Senate could move to the $64.9 billion, fiscal 2010 Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations bill as soon as Wednesday, once it finishes work on a $24 billion package of jobless benefits and tax incentives for homebuyers and struggling businesses.

The Senate began considering C-J-S Oct. 5, but set it aside after failing to get 60 votes to cut off debate on the bill Oct. 13.

After C-J-S, the Senate is expected to move to the $133.9 billion Military Construction-VA spending measure.

Inouye said next week he would like to clear compromise Defense and Transportation bills.

But he stressed that progress on the remaining appropriations bills and the likelihood of ending the fiscal 2010 appropriations process with an omnibus lies with cooperation from Senate Republicans. "We are going to try our best to get every bill done, but it seems unlikely in this world," Inouye said. Republicans "are not helping themselves because I think the people of the United States are not that dumb."

Megan Scully contributed to this report.

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