House clears bill keeping agencies open until Jan. 11

Last-minute anxieties over highway spending, how to avoid a sequestration of mandatory spending and remaining confusion over how lawmakers can actually finish up the fiscal 2003 appropriations process next year almost toppled plans to pass a fourth continuing resolution Wednesday. But in the end, the House was able to clear it by a vote of 270-143 a CR that would extend government operations until Jan. 11.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, in a passionate floor speech, urged his committee members to vote down the rule on the CR because the CR continued to carry language-which he agreed to last month-that would mandate an initial spend-out rate of $31.8 billion for highway money but cap the amount that could be appropriated, if the CR were annualized, at $27.7 billion.

Young said that when he initially agreed to the language, he said that if a CR were written past Dec. 31, 2002, he would move to strike it so that the smaller cap, which he opposes, would be removed. He said it was "unfair to single out" highway money and even accused the White House of trying to use money from the highway trust fund to pay for other federal programs.

"This is not their money, this is our money," Young fumed, as he urged his 70-plus member-strong Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to vote down the rule.

But in a strange twist, Young himself actually voted for the rule-either as a result of arm-twisting by the House leadership or promises made to increase highway funding in the final version of the 2003 Transportation spending bill.

House leaders, pressed for time because of GOP leadership elections, early this afternoon pulled legislation that would waive so-called pay-go rules to avoid a sequestration of 2002 mandatory spending. That bill was slated to come up Wednesday night or possibly Thursday.

The waiver would prevent an across-the-board reduction of between $30 billion and $60 billion in mandatory programs, such as Medicare, student loans and agriculture. While the waiver is likely to pass, as few lawmakers want to see a cut in those programs, Democrats are still threatening to turn the maneuver, which has in the past been done with little fanfare, into another battle over GOP budget priorities.

"This simply highlights the fact that the GOP budget plan invades the Social Security Trust Fund as far as the eye can see, and instead of re-establishing budget rules that will help bring us back to balance, they are allowing budget rules to disappear," said Thomas Kahn, staff director of the House Budget Committee Democrats.

Moreover, appropriators, who refused to let the pay-go provision be attached to the CR as House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, wanted to help ease passage, say that if leaders are willing to break out $30 billion or $60 billion for these programs, it should release as little as $10 billion to help finish up 2003 spending bills and bridge the gap between the House and Senate spending levels.