Lawmakers seek compromise on appropriations in lame-duck session

Assuming election results do not complicate House and Senate leaders' efforts to hold a productive lame-duck session, Congress' first order of business next month will be trying to finish fiscal 2003 appropriations.

But questions that have so far stymied appropriators-namely, the spending gulf that separates the Senate, the House and the White House-will persist unless lawmakers find a creative way to bridge the gap.

"We have to get a top-line number that's the same," said House Appropriations Chairman C.W. (Bill) Young, R-Fla. Aides are expected to work during the recess to find solutions. "The hope is we can make some progress to put us in a position to complete work on the bills," a spokesman for Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said.

With some give-and-take, appropriators in both chambers believe they can reach a spending level that is higher than the House and lower than the Senate, allowing them to complete work on the remaining appropriations bills in a few days and get out of town.

Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., repeatedly has called on the House and Senate to "split the difference," a move that would seem the logical next step during a lame duck. But splitting the difference presents significant problems. For one, the money probably would have to be drawn from the $10 billion reserve set aside for future defense needs. "If [the fund] could be used to cushion the gap, that would be our key out," a Senate appropriations source said. But the move would anger defense hawks, not to mention the administration, which has said the money should be used for the war on terrorism, particularly if there is a war with Iraq early next year.

Second, splitting the difference implies more spending-something that the administration and House conservatives oppose. Yet another indication came this week, as the White House shot down requests for drought assistance from Rep. John Thune, R-S.D., who is trying to unseat Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson and who wanted to play his ability to get drought aid to his advantage.

"The president has been clear from the beginning of the process about what the appropriate level of spending should be," an OMB spokeswoman said. But some appropriators suggest that President Bush, by allowing the House and Senate to split the difference-or something to that effect-could still take credit for holding the line on spending and getting the trains moving again. "[OMB Director Mitch] Daniels will recognize that his accomplishment will be slowing the rate of growth in government spending," said Rep. Sonny Callahan, R-Ala., a veteran appropriator. "If he's able to bring the Senate down, he will have accomplished a great deal."