Omnibus spending bill may take weeks to finish
With the Senate's completion Thursday night of the $390 billion fiscal 2003 omnibus appropriations bill, attention turns to the House-Senate conference, which sources are saying could take weeks to complete.
The main problem from the appropriators' standpoint, now that the Senate bill is done, is how to reconcile the calls for more than $12 billion in additional spending attached to the bill on the Senate floor-for education, drought relief, Amtrak, and foreign aid-while still keeping the total within the president's stated budget limits.
"I'm not sure what the Senate is trying to tell us," said a House GOP appropriations aide. The source questioned whether that money, particularly for education, is now a must-have item, and, if it is, whether the administration is going to force Congress to dip back into the discretionary pie to pay for it.
The only way the Senate was able to pay for the increases was through an across-the-board cut of 2.9 percent, but appropriators do not think that number is going to stick in conference because of what it will mean to other domestic programs that are also high priority, such as policing grants, health care or foreign aid.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, was supposed to introduce an amendment that would have reduced the cut by about 1 percent, but lawmakers decided to pass on that issue because of a squabble between appropriators and the administration over how to count $3 billion in drought aid. Appropriators argue that the aid should not trigger a discretionary cut because it is agricultural spending that should be funded under mandatory accounts, which are not subject to spending limits. If that money did not count toward the overall total of the bill, appropriators would have a lot more room to maneuver and could potentially add "real" money for education increases.
Meanwhile, appropriations sources said they openly doubt the administration's position that more money could be made available under the president's spending targets because of savings accumulated by federal agencies whose spending has been held down by a continuing resolution for the first four months of the fiscal year.
"It's a fabrication," a House appropriations source said of the potential savings, while vowing to keep budget gimmicks off the final bill. "If we're going to produce a document, we shouldn't try to cook the books," said the aide. "If we're going to be mean, we should be mean."
Still, while the makeup of an across-the-board cut is still in flux, Senate Appropriations ranking member Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., predicted Friday that some type of across-the-board fix-although likely smaller than the 2.9 percent in the Senate bill-will have to get into the conference report if lawmakers are to keep to the president's spending totals.
The conference report "will come pretty close [to the president's level] because the cards are stacked," said Byrd, noting that Republican leaders were too willing to follow the White House's lead on spending matters to finish the fiscal 2003 process. "The whole thing is under the administration's control," Byrd said.