Lawmakers grappling with best strategy for keeping government running

Democratic leaders are attempting to get on the same page on how to fund the government, but mixed signals among Senate and House Democrats and the White House are casting some doubt on the only must do business in the lame duck: funding the government.

Senate Democratic leaders are aiming to make a decision on whether to pursue an omnibus appropriations package or extend the current continuing resolution.

Upon leaving a caucus meeting Wednesday, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said he hoped for a decision by "tomorrow evening." But prospects for passing an omnibus, particularly in the Senate, are unclear.

Democrats have 58 votes in the lame-duck session and would need at least two Republicans to overcome any possible Republican filibuster, if all Democrats support an omnibus, which is not a foregone conclusion.

Many Senate Democrats Wednesday said they believe that a CR is the more likely scenario rather than an omnibus, in part because a Senate GOP voluntary ban on earmarks - approved by the Caucus this week - makes it more difficult to entice Republicans for the package.

"It looks like it's just a CR at this stage, said Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., adding that she prefers an omnibus.

House Appropriators are currently working on a continuing resolution, according to House and Senate Republican sources.

House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Norm Dicks, D-Wash., the likely ranking member of the panel in the next Congress, confirmed that the panel is "working on all options."

Retiring House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis. - who typically keeps his legislative plans to himself - said he had "no idea" if an omnibus bill would pass the chamber, and brushed off other questions.

A spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee said no decisions have been made on how to proceed. Senate Democrats are expected to meet again to talk about the agenda for the lame-duck session, among other things.

Inouye and other senators said that a path forward on appropriations was a topic of discussion in the meeting. Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said that Senate Democratic leaders must also get clarification on the way forward from the House and the White House.

Pryor, who is a member of the Appropriations Committee, also said he believes that Congress is more likely to pass a CR than an omnibus.

"I prefer an omnibus, but I think I am getting a CR," Pryor said.

Senate Republicans were also unsure an omnibus could pass the chamber, even though some would prefer it.

"We would be better off doing an omnibus bill so the agencies out there would have an idea of what's available to them," said retiring Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio.

"There are contracts that are out there that they can't sign because they don't know if they are going to get the money they think they are, but they can't do it. Contractors, many of them, even if they could get it, are reluctant to take it on because they are not certain it's going to happen.

"What will happen here politically, probably, is that they won't do an omnibus bill because Republicans are going to take over the House and some of the priorities of the Democrats will be changed," Voinovich continued.

Asked if he would back an omnibus if it made it to the Senate floor, he said he would have to see the omnibus before he could say if he would vote for it.

Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., also said he would prefer an omnibus, but he stressed that that doesn't mean he would necessarily vote for one if it comes to the floor.

"I think the certainty of knowing what the full-year appropriations for all government programs is a lot more efficient, a better practice, than not knowing how much you are going to have for the full fiscal year," Cochran said, adding that "I reserve the right to vote against it" if he doesn't agree with it.

Meanwhile, Democrats at their caucus meeting discussed the issue of earmarks, according to several senators.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., an opponent of member-directed spending, said "everyone got to express their opinions." She added that "I think we made some progress" on convincing other Democrats to support an earmark moratorium.

McCaskill sponsored, along with Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., an amendment to food safety legislation that the Senate is currently considering. The amendment would put in place a binding earmark ban for fiscal years 2011 through 2013.

McCaskill said she believes that the Senate will vote on the amendment before the end of the lame-duck session.

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