Senate budget chief raises concerns about anti-shutdown measure

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Don Nickles, R-Okla., is expressing concerns over the continuing resolution to fund the government until Oct. 31 that was expected on the Senate floor Thursday.

Senate GOP aides said those concerns stem from the fact the CR contains a higher "spend-out" rate than in the fiscal 2004 budget resolution, which allowed for $784.7 billion in discretionary spending. The CR would continue spending at the fiscal annualized rate of $765 billion, as well as appropriations made in 2003 supplementals-$79 billion for the Iraq war, airline assistance and other purposes, and about $1.9 billion for disaster relief. That takes annualized 2003 spending up to $846 billion.

A provision extending funds for certain Transportation Department employees might also be of concern, an aide said, since a separate five-month extension of the federal highway program was expected to clear this week.

"We are reviewing the numbers to make sure they are consistent with our long-term fiscal policy goals," said a Nickles spokeswoman. She would not comment on whether Nickles would raise points of order against the measure.

But Nickles' concerns could delay speedy approval of the CR, which the House approved Thursday on a 407-8 vote over the objections of House Appropriations ranking member David Obey, D-Wis., who said it was a result of poor Republcian management of the fiscal 2004 appropriations process.

The stopgap measure is necessary because few of the 13 spending bills are likely to pass before the fiscal year ends next Tuesday, although lawmakers may also take up Energy and Water and Military Construction appropriations conference reports next week.

With the exception of Defense, Homeland Security and Legislative Branch spending bills-all of which will be passed this week-the CR would fund programs at the 2003 enacted rate, adjusted upward for supplemental spending. The Senate Thursday cleared the Defense spending bill for President Bush's signature on a 95-0 vote.

The CR contains technical changes for certain agencies and programs such as NASA, EPA's Superfund cleanup program and the Federal Housing Administration that needed legislative fixes apart from a straight continuation of last year's spend-out rate.

The CR also includes a $550 million loan to the Czech Republic under the Foreign Military Financing program for weapons and training. Under the program, the Czech government has until Oct. 15 to apply for the funds, which are to be paid back over a 12-year period.

Meanwhile, the Senate Thursday was expected to approve the five-month extension of federal highway and mass transit programs passed Wednesday by the House. That extension had at one time been considered for inclusion in the CR.

The extension of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century provides $14 billion for highway construction projects and $3 billion for mass transit. The extension became necessary earlier this month when it became clear that neither the House nor the Senate would conclude a full six-year reauthorization bill before TEA-21 expires next Tuesday.