Appropriators vow to pick up the pace on spending bills

Attempting to discount suggestions that Congress could not accomplish any more on fiscal 2003 appropriations than passing a Defense spending bill before adjourning for the elections, appropriators vowed Tuesday to finish as many as spending bills as possible before adopting a continuing resolution near the end of the month.

"I'm not even going to talk about a CR at this point," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.

A House Appropriations Committee Republican aide concurred-saying it would be wrong to abandon other bills, given the continuing war on terrorism abroad and homeland security concerns at home. "It is irresponsible public policy," said the aide.

And an Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman denied that the White House was focusing disproportionately on the Defense bill-and that it would be content to let the other bills lag until after the elections. "We want to get the Defense bill done first," the spokeswoman said. "But the president has other priorities, such as homeland security and education, that he would like to see get done as well."

As Byrd acknowledged Tuesday, completing work on those bills is "going to take some time." Currently, a difference of about $9 billion to $15 billion in total spending wanted by both chambers remains, with the White House backing the lower total discretionary figure of $759 billion preferred by House leaders.

Byrd said he has not yet asked for a meeting with House leaders to try to work out an agreement. He and Senate Appropriations ranking member Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, will continue to insist on spending levels contained in the Senate's 2003 bills, he said.

Stevens said he is likely to raise appropriators' concerns with the White House during meetings this week, but was prepared to move forward without White House help.

"We don't need the cooperation of the White House" to write spending bills, Stevens said. "The president has the right to use his veto pen."

But the inability to come to terms with a top-line number is not simply slowing the harder-to-pass domestic bills. It is also having an impact on the ability to conference the Defense and Military Construction measures.

The Senate has allocated nearly $1.2 billion more for those two bills than the House, leaving House appropriators with the difficult task of trying to accommodate the Senate without starving other spending bills.

"It is not realistic to assume that we can proceed [to a Defense conference] when the Senate number is that much higher than ours," said a House committee aide.

Meanwhile, the fiscal situation-and the relationship between appropriators and the White House-could get trickier this week, as the White House is set to send up a budget request for some of the items it rejected as part of the $5.1 billion emergency package in the recently enacted supplemental appropriations bill.

Last week, OMB also requested an additional $800 million in fiscal 2002 emergency firefighting money, after months of telling Congress that it had enough money to deal with the problems in the West.

Appropriators said Tuesday that the total still might not be enough-but that a deal probably would emerge on the 2003 Interior bill, which heads to the Senate floor Wednesday.

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