Awaiting Bush's supplemental, Hill bears down on approps

While lawmakers this week await the administration's formal request for $87 billion in fiscal 2004 supplemental funds for Iraq and Afghanistan, of which $21 billion is for reconstruction, they may move ahead significantly on the regular fiscal 2004 appropriations process. But as the obscure issue of crab prices-yes, crab prices-looms over the appropriations process in the Senate, House and Senate energy conferees will begin divulging titles of their wide-ranging legislation.

With the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year approaching, House and Senate spending negotiators could wrap up work on conference reports for the fiscal 2004 Defense, Legislative Branch and Homeland Security appropriations bills-the latter aided by an amended budget request submitted late last week by the White House that adds $900 million to the agreed-on fiscal 2004 top-line discretionary figure of $784.7 billion.

The bulk of the new funds-$890 million-would go toward the "Project Bioshield" homeland defense program, which the administration had wanted to make mandatory. But administration officials had faced a hostile Congress, which wanted more say over where the money would go.

Now with each chamber's allocation a bit higher, the Homeland Security measure could be the first conference report to be sent to President Bush's desk. After the Defense and Legislative Branch bills, the latter of which carries with it fiscal 2003 emergency funding, aides are making progress on the Military Construction spending bill. That measure is among the first to finish, but this year faces difficulties over issues relating to overseas bases as well as chemical demilitarization facilities.

On the fiscal 2003 emergency measure, AmeriCorps backers are unlikely to be successful in attaching $100 million they say is needed to sustain the volunteer program&$151;although the money could be tied to the fiscal 2004 VA-HUD bill, or possibly to the Iraq supplemental. But Republican leaders will try to keep the latter measure clean.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska told reporters late last week that "I still don't have anything from the administration" in terms of details of the Iraq request. "We have a lot of work to do first" on the regular fiscal 2004 bills before approving the $87 billion supplemental, Stevens said, adding, "I don't intend to be rushed with this bill."

Stevens noted the concerns of many lawmakers, including Appropriations ranking member Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and reiterated his call for hearings. Stevens said he supported the request but that "it's going to cost a lot more than $21 billion to reconstruct Iraq."

The Senate still has eight fiscal 2004 bills to complete, but finished the most difficult and costly of the nondefense bills last week-the fiscal 2004 Labor-HHS bill, with $137.6 billion in discretionary funds.

Informal conferencing on that bill could also begin next week, Stevens said. Stevens said his goal is to complete that conference by the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30. Otherwise, funding under a continuing resolution would fund the measure's programs at last year's level-$2.8 billion less than the pending measure.

Stevens said an amendment-which he supported-to block proposed changes to overtime regulations would survive in some form, as "they were not prepared on a consensus basis" and as drafted could throw workers off overtime rolls. But he noted the presidential veto threat, and indicated that there would have to be a compromise.

Next up on the Senate floor-beginning Monday-is the $27.3 billion fiscal 2004 Energy and Water appropriations bill, which faces among other amendments a proposal by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to block funding for nuclear weapons programs.

But GOP aides expect to complete that bill before the week is out and turn to the fiscal 2004 District of Columbia spending bill if they can avert a Democratic filibuster issue over school vouchers. If not, they could move to the $19.5 billion fiscal 2004 Interior spending bill or the $90 billion VA-HUD measure.

Then there is the crab price controversy: One appropriations bill that is unlikely to reach the floor next week is the $37.6 billion fiscal 2004 Commerce-Justice-State bill, on which Commerce Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., has placed a 'hold' due to several provisions he claims are within the jurisdiction of his committee, including language on crab prices.

Ironically, that bill would reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act-co-authored by the current Senate Appropriations chairman. Stevens said he was working to resolve the concerns of McCain and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who also opposes the crab provision.

Stevens was realistic about the chances that at least some fiscal 2004 spending bills would have to be wrapped in an omnibus. "It looks like I'll have a sour stomach around the last part of October," he said.