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Senate considers bundling budget bills

Senate Republican and Democratic leaders have discussed combining a handful of pressing budget and spending measures into a single package in order to expedite consideration on the floor within the next few weeks.

The idea would be to combine the fiscal 2003 budget resolution with an increase in the federal debt limit--which is considered a must-pass item--and with the president's fiscal 2002 supplemental appropriations bill.

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said he has discussed the idea with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said Thursday he is "open" to the idea.

"The days are ticking by here, and the workload keeps getting increased," said Conrad, who added he is "prepared to go to the floor with the budget resolution that has passed the Budget Committee."

But Conrad noted the Senate has seen its schedule delayed on a host of other issues. "We keep getting pushed back. I do think we've got to examine all options," he said.

Lott, referring to the budget resolution, debt ceiling and supplemental, said, "We've got to figure out how to deal with these three issues in a relatively short period of time."

Nevertheless, sources said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., does not support combining the controversial budget measures with the supplemental bill in the Appropriations Committee, although Byrd would defer to Daschle about what happens on the floor.

It is unclear what the political benefit might be to combining the measures. Conrad appears to lack the 51 votes needed to pass his budget resolution. The supplemental is expected to draw strong support because of its funding for the war and homeland security. An increase in the debt limit can be a difficult vote, but one the administration will insist Republicans support.

Asked how the package might pass, Conrad said, "I think it would take a bipartisan vote to get this done." Republicans have been skewering Democrats for failing to meet the April 15 statutory deadline for passing a budget, warning that failure to do so would wreak havoc with the appropriations process. The package would be debatable and amendable in the Senate, and could take up considerable floor time. Conrad said the idea, which initiated with Republicans, was to move a package before Memorial Day.

Conrad also said that expiring budget provisions that allow legislators to raise points of order against legislation that violates pay-as-you-go procedures would also be included. He said he wanted to reinstate the discretionary spending cap in the package as well.

On Tuesday, Sens. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., introduced budget process legislation that would renew the expiring provisions and spending cap.