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Senator may bring stalled spending bills straight to floor

Incoming Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, is considering moving the remaining 11 fiscal 2003 appropriations bills directly to the floor next week, even if Senate leaders cannot agree to an organizing resolution, sources said Friday.

Looking to follow regular order as much as possible in what is the last phase of the bizarre 2003 appropriations cycle, Stevens had hoped to mark up the bills at their revised allocations before proceeding to floor action. But with the Senate only set to be in session one more week before the president's State of the Union address-the unofficial, and increasingly improbable, deadline for finishing the 2003 bills-appropriators said the markup might have to be abandoned in order to get the bills completed and into conference with the House by the end of next week. "All the options are available," said a GOP appropriations source.

Because the Senate is in session next week anyway, the source said it would be logical-whether the organizing resolution is completed or not-to proceed with the appropriations bills because the placeholder continuing resolution, to which Stevens plans to attach to the 11 bills, has already been received by the Senate and is ready for action.

Furthermore, while the markup would be a symbolic approval of the bill's new allocations-which cut more than $10 billion from the versions approved last year by the committee-the real heavy lifting would be on the floor anyway. Appropriators typically defer amendments until floor action.

"We all want to do the normal process as much as possible, but we also have a time constraint to work under if we want to get this out of the way," said the source. "If [the Senate's] going to be around, they've got to do something."

Although Stevens would still not officially be committee chairman, he would manage the bills on the floor. But it will not be an enviable assignment. Democrats and some GOP allies plan to offer a slew of amendments that could potentially boost funding beyond the $385 billion total of the 11 bills, complicating appropriators' ability to conference them and send them to the president under his prescribed overall budget total of $750.5 billion.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who is still chairman of the Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee, said Thursday he is planning to offer an amendment that would add between $4 billion and $5 billion for education in order to make funding levels consistent with those prescribed in President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act.

"We're going to have to restore [the cuts], whatever it takes," Harkin said.

Also looming is an amendment by a bipartisan coalition of Western states seeking to add $3 billion to $4 billion for drought aid. Appropriators have been holding out hope that the administration would accept extra money for drought, but so far the administration has been unwilling to break the $750.5 billion overall budget total to provide the aid.

Said a spokesman for Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., "We're looking at ways to get their attention."