New Congress faces unfinished fiscal business

As the 108th Congress convenes, congressional Republicans and President Bush are eager to make a clean start. They'd like to swiftly put the gridlock of the past Congress-not to mention the debacle involving Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss.-behind them, and to capitalize on their gains in last November's election to move an ambitious legislative agenda. But before they can get to that point, there's a little dirty work to do.

The new Congress is going to be forced to spend at least the next several weeks cleaning up the massive mess left behind by the last Congress. In some way, shape, or form, the House and Senate have got to pass the remaining 11 fiscal 2003 appropriations bills. Even though fiscal 2003 began on October 1, only the Defense and Military Construction appropriations bills have been approved by both chambers and signed by the president. The remainder of the federal government has been operating on a series of continuing resolutions.

The White House and congressional Republican leaders want fiscal 2003 discretionary spending to total no more than $750.5 billion, the amount that Bush had requested in his budget last February and the amount that House Republicans had agreed upon. But the Democratic-controlled Senate had proposed spending about $10 billion above that level. Now that Republicans control both chambers of Congress and the White House, GOP leaders insist they'll find a way to pass the appropriations bills. But that may be easier said than done.

The $750.5 billion cap means that spending on federal programs, apart from defense and homeland security, will increase by only 2 percent in fiscal 2003, which is far less than Congress is accustomed to. In fiscal 2001, spending grew by 8.6 percent under former President Clinton. And in fiscal 2002, Bush and congressional leaders in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 agreed to an 8 percent spending boost.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. "Bill" Young, R-Fla., conceded that keeping federal spending at $750.5 billion will be a challenge. "This isn't going to be easy," Young told reporters in December. The ranking member on Young's committee, Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., agreed that cutting $10 billion from the Senate's spending bills "will be very difficult to do."

A key interest group in the budget debate recently warned of the cuts that would be necessary to maintain the spending level that Bush prefers. Assuming the president's increases for homeland security and defense are enacted, funding for domestic programs would have to be cut by between $9 billion and $14 billion, when adjusted for inflation, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

To further complicate matters, Congress will have to move quickly to finish the fiscal 2003 appropriations bills to avoid throwing the budget process into even more chaos, because Bush is scheduled to send his fiscal 2004 budget to Capitol Hill on February 3. Bush and Republican leaders have said they want to finish the fiscal 2003 bills by January 28, when Bush plans to deliver his State of the Union address. But Congress expects to be in session for only about six days in January. "It's going to be very difficult to meet that timetable," Obey said.

It's likely that Congress will bundle the remaining 11 fiscal 2003 appropriations bills into one omnibus bill. More than a few pet programs will have to be squeezed in the process. "To make the bill equitable, everybody's got to give at the office," said James Dyer, the staff director of the House Appropriations Committee. "Members are really going to have to swallow hard."

House appropriators intend to wait for the Senate to make the cuts necessary to meet the $750.5 billion target, according to Dyer. But passing an omnibus spending package in the Senate could pose a huge problem for the new Republican leadership team headed by incoming Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., because it has not had much time to focus on the issue.

The Senate Republicans' slim 51-48 majority means that any small group of members could derail an omnibus spending bill if it believes funding is too high or too low. Moreover, Senate Democrats are likely to use the debate on the bill to highlight their own agenda. "I think there's plenty of opportunity for mischief," said a senior Senate Democratic aide. "I hope there's some resolve in our caucus to provide some. It's a great opportunity to debate some things that matter-Democratic priorities-at the start of the session."

Meanwhile, in the House, where Republicans enjoy a 229-204 majority, passage of an omnibus spending bill may not be a done deal. House GOP moderates will insist that social programs shouldn't be shortchanged, according to Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., a key moderate. Still, Young predicted that House members will agree that they must complete work on the fiscal 2003 funding measures. "While there may be some who hold their nose when they vote for it," Young said, "I believe we will have the votes to pass it."

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