Omnibus spending bill quickly draws add-ons

No sooner had House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., given appropriators the green light to begin building the end-of-session omnibus appropriations bill than it began attracting unrelated add-ons.

As appropriations aides were putting the finishing touches Thursday on a $27.3 billion, fiscal 2004 Energy and Water appropriations conference report, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, sought to inject some life into his stalled Water Resources Development Act-which passed the House but will not be considered in the Senate-by attaching it to the spending bill. Although the move was unsuccessful, House GOP leaders will try to include it on the omnibus.

House GOP leaders were ready to comply with Young's initial request, aides said. But Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young, R-Fla.,-with whom the transportation chairman regularly clashes over funding issues-and Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman David Hobson, R-Ohio, balked at the idea. However, they said they made a deal with Young and House GOP leaders to include the measure on the omnibus.

They argued it would subject the almost-complete Energy and Water spending bill to the congressional "Rule 28," which allows points of order against inclusion of provisions that did not pass in either chamber as part of either underlying bill.

Also, they hesitated to include authorizing language on an appropriations bill, they said.

"WRDA will not be on the bill," Hobson said.

A Transportation and Infrastructure Committee spokesman could not be reached for comment.

The water authorizing legislation contains about $4 billion for projects, making it attractive to House members with projects in the bill. Senators would not be so eager to include it as part of the omnibus, and it is unclear if they will accept the move. But the end-of-session spending package can be very hard to oppose.

Another controversial candidate for the omnibus is legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration-a measure that has been deadlocked for months over the issue of air traffic control privatization.

Including the stalled conference report in the omnibus would be an effective way to get around Democratic objections.

"It's been under discussion," House Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce of Ohio confirmed Thursday.

Both House and Senate bills originally contained provisions blocking or partially blocking a Bush administration initiative that could lead to outsourcing some air traffic control employees, but were deleted at the request of the White House. The FAA conference report has passed the House, but Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., is threatening a filibuster.

A spokesman for House Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member James Oberstar, D-Minn., who also opposes air traffic control privatization, said, "It's obvious Republicans are not going to sit down and negotiate." But Oberstar acknowledged the omnibus would be hard to stop.

"In the Senate, I don't expect Lautenberg or anyone else to filibuster the omnibus," he added.

The omnibus will begin to take shape over the next week, as Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, tries to get as many unfinished bills through that chamber as possible before next Wednesday, when Frist embarks on a 30-hour debate on the judicial nomination process.

The Senate approved the $77.4 billion, Agriculture spending bill Thursday night, 93-1, and was to consider the $90 billion, VA-HUD bill Monday-followed, if possible, by a $37 billion, Commerce-Justice-State bill before the deadline.

On Thursday, Hastert and Frist directed Stevens and Young to get the omnibus ready as soon as Frist pulls the plug on consideration of individual spending bills next week, to prepare for a Nov. 21 target adjournment date.

Young said it could also contain conference reports that are not in the final stages next week, and staff are already beginning the process.

"If I can't get [the omnibus] cranked up soon, we'll never get it finished by the 21st," he said.