Senate appropriators plan cutbacks in fiscal 2003 bills

Looking for a way to put a lid on the troubled fiscal 2003 appropriations process, Senate appropriators are using the recess to trim billions from the 11 remaining 2003 spending bills to comply with President Bush's revised budget request of $750.48 billion.

The task is a difficult one, requiring nearly $15 billion in cuts to remove spending the original bills contained over the administration's request, counting regular appropriations, emergency spending and highway money. But that chore could pale next to the Herculean task confronting incoming Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, in January.

The goal as it stands now, aides said, is to finish the 11 bills at revised, reduced allocations by the first week of January, when the current continuing resolution expires. Stevens would then oversee a markup of the bills in the committee and later move them to the floor for passage, either as one omnibus bill or possibly as several packages containing groups of related bills. The bills then would be conferenced with the House and hopefully signed into law in time for the president's State of the Union address, which is expected to take place Jan. 28.

On the surface, the plan seems to present opportunities for Democrats-if they are willing-to put the president's budget to the test and slow the GOP-controlled Congress. "It's a dangerous game," said one Democratic aide.

But Stevens' staff is insistent that they have little choice but to try complete 2003 bills at the president's budget levels, even if they are unable to guarantee that all deadlines will be met and that senators will like the end product. "Either you try to hit [the president's number] or you don't," said a GOP appropriations aide, referring to Bush's refusal, so far, to negotiate with appropriators over 2003 funding.

To get the bills down to the president's number, "clearly, there are some things that are not going to be get done," admitted the aide. Contrary to some rumors, however, aides said it is not Stevens' intent to delay spending plans for some programs until a spring supplemental to get needed budget relief to live within the president's limits.

"That's not the case at all," the aide said.

But appropriators hope to negotiate scoring relief for transportation spending, and budget relief from the White House for fire and drought emergencies. The administration so far has been receptive to spending additional money to help fill depleted firefighting accounts from the summer's record fire season. But there has been less willingness to open the gates to billions of dollars in drought relief, preferring instead to stick to regularly appropriated farm accounts to deal with the situation.