Congress faces 'do-or-die' week on huge spending bill

Congress faces yet another tight deadline to finish the huge fiscal 2003 omnibus appropriations bill—with one third of the fiscal year already over.

This is the "do or die" week for the fiscal 2003 omnibus spending bill, as Congress bears down on a Presidents' Day recess that many regard as the final deadline to resolve spending for a fiscal year already one-third over.

While some omnibus issues remain unresolved, it appeared late last week that appropriators and congressional leaders had enough momentum to push them over the hump and finally conclude the 2003 budget cycle.

A formal meeting of House and Senate conferees is expected tonight on the massive $390 billion bill, which encompasses the 11 unfinished 2003 appropriations bills. With that deadline in mind, many individual subcommittees were close to wrapping up their basic work last Friday, with only "big picture" items, which require leadership and administration input, remaining.

Among issues likely to be left open until tonight is the size of an across-the-board spending cut. Appropriators are hoping to shrink the 2.9 percent cut contained in the Senate omnibus to under 1 percent-a few billion dollars. Much of the across-the-board cut would go to fund education, with appropriators looking at increasing education accounts about $2 billion above the president's request.

Appropriators also are considering boosting education with so-called "advanced appropriations," also in the $2 billion range, according to sources. That would ease pressure on the bill's dollar constraints, but it might stir opposition from the administration, which has stood against the use of advanced appropriations, calling the technique an unnecessary budget gimmick.

Another outstanding item is drought aid. The House has resisted the Senate's decision to fund $3.1 billion for the aid within the parameters of an across-the-board cut, with appropriators pushing to see the money come from mandatory agriculture accounts authorized in the farm bill.

The administration also would prefer to see the money come from mandatory accounts. But authorizers, including Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss.-who also serves as chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee-so far have opposed using mandatory offsets to pay for the drought proposal.

Other items that might be hard to resolve include accommodating the $1.5 billion election reform proposal, the appropriate level of highway funding and even various non-appropriations issues, such as overseas family planning and Cuba trade.