Budget picture remains cloudy with little chance to clear

Although the congressional decision to punt on the 11 remaining fiscal 2003 appropriations bills has cleared the way for Congress to exit by the end of next week, the maneuvering has done little to clear the fog shrouding the Appropriations committees, which are supposed to use the next couple of months to resolve the same differences that have clouded the budget picture all year.

Some lawmakers and top aides even fear that the decision to avoid making choices now could actually hurt the ability to wrap up work before Congress returns in early January.

"This is a process that traditionally happens late in the year when our backs are pressed up against a wall, and now that wall's been pushed back," said a senior House Appropriations Committee aide.

Without the threat of keeping lawmakers in session to broker a deal, the aide said it would be more difficult to force leaders to make decisions on a variety of issues, especially regarding a top-line number for the House, Senate and White House.

On that front, appropriators are hoping to sit down soon with the administration to try to devise a total everyone can live with, although it may not be so easy.

House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, reiterated again Wednesday that he wants to stick to the $749 billion laid out in his budget resolution, even as appropriators decry Nussle's intransigence as the reason why the appropriations process is in such a mess in the first place.

"If he's right, then why are we here?" said the appropriations aide.

Still, incoming Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, hopes appropriators can actually agree to a budget that fits snugly into the prescriptions laid out by the president's budget, according to a senior aide, though doing so would mean the administration must admit that its total is more than $749 billion, as commonly cited.

Indeed, more than $1 billion in additional amendments has been submitted without corresponding "pay-fors" by the administration-money that, if released, could give appropriators some breathing room.

House appropriators also hope that the administration would allow the expenditure of a $9 billion accrual-accounting fund that the president used for one purpose in his budget but that Senate appropriators used to help fund discretionary projects. Also in dispute is how much money has been agreed to for highway funding.

Still, the Stevens aide said that while the senator will remain cognizant of the appropriations bills cleared unanimously by the committee this year, it may be possible to reduce the cost of several of the Senate bills given that three months of the fiscal year will have already expired by January and some agencies may not need as much money as once thought.

But a spokesman for current Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., while not denying that possibility, pointed out that several agencies, particularly those involved with homeland security, are being asked to perform more duties today than they were six months ago.

Another major unknown in the January budget equation is what lawmakers intend to do with a $10 billion reserve fund for defense.

The White House this summer sent up an initial request that was criticized by appropriators as being too vague, and its possible, congressional aides said, they may try to submit a more concrete one soon-possibly in time to incorporate it or make additional spending requests for defense before January.