Congress in 'stand-down mode' as fiscal 2003 nears

With two weeks to go before the end of the fiscal year, the fiscal 2003 appropriations process is not much further along than it was when Congress recessed in August.

"We're basically in stand-down mode around here," said James Dyer, staff director of the House Appropriations Committee.

A feud between moderates and conservatives over the funding levels in the fiscal 2003 Labor-Health and Human Services spending bill continues to vex House leaders, who are holding up consideration of other bills on the floor until the Labor-HHS problem is resolved. Similarly, the Senate has spent two weeks debating its 2003 Interior spending bill, which has been slowed by a still-unresolved debate over forest fire policy and the passage of $6 billion in drought aid for farm states.

The end result is that no appropriations bill has been sent to President Bush, who has been clamoring for the 2003 Defense and Military Construction spending measures. Appropriators hope to complete a conference report on them by the first week of October, although it will not be easy.

Thanks to a recent request from the White House for more foreign aid money but no extra budget authority or proposed offsets to pay for it, House appropriators last week moved $200 million from the Defense spending bill's allocation to the Foreign Operations appropriations measure.

Although House Appropriations Chairman C.W. "Bill" Young, R-Fla., said the money would eventually be restored, the move means the House is now $1.4 billion short of the Senate on combined defense money. Given that the Senate has close to $10 billion more in discretionary budget authority than the House, appropriators are finding it difficult to simply "split the difference" and expect that other House bills will not be even more shortchanged in conferences down the road.

Three other spending bills in the House have now moved through committee but have yet to reach the floor-the 2003 Agriculture, Energy and Water and Foreign Operations spending bills. The committee might complete a fourth-the District of Columbia appropriations bill-by the end of this week.

That would still leave the Veteran Affairs-Housing and Urban Development, Labor-HHS, Commerce-Justice-State and Transportation spending bills to be moved through committee. The Transportation appropriations bill is currently being held up by a scoring disagreement between the Appropriations and Budget committees over highway funds, while the others are too short on cash, according to appropriators.

On the Senate side of the Capitol, finishing the Interior spending bill is top priority. A cloture vote is scheduled Tuesday on an amendment by Appropriations Chairman Bob Byrd, D-W.V., to add $825 million in emergency firefighting money. While the amendment has widespread support, cloture could be in jeopardy thanks to an ongoing dispute over fire policy language offered by Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Pete Domenici, R-N.M.

If a compromise on firefighting funds cannot be reached by Tuesday, Western Republicans could muster enough votes to kill the cloture motion and further delay the bill.

When the Interior spending measure is completed, it will mark only the fourth appropriations bill that both chambers have passed. The Senate would then likely move to the Treasury spending bill, the only other bill so far cleared by the House.