Omnibus negotiations pick up as lawmakers seek a deal

Negotiations on a $388.4 billion fiscal 2005 omnibus spending package picked up Monday in hopes of striking a deal that would avoid extending the lame duck session into next week.

Aides were struggling against an ambitious timetable to put together a package of spending additions and offsets to remain within an overall fiscal 2005 discretionary spending cap of $821.9 billion.

They are also dealing with last-minute project requests and policy riders from both sides of the Capitol, since the omnibus is likely to be the last train out of the legislative station. Republican leaders also are still wrestling with the need to increase the statutory debt limit. While the Senate plans to approve a stand-alone debt limit increase before many Democrats leave town Wednesday for the opening of the Clinton presidential library in Little Rock, Ark., the House has not yet decided on an approach, leadership aides said Monday.

Senate action on a stand-alone increase does not preclude House leaders from tucking it into another bill, aides noted, although they held out the possibility of a separate House vote, perhaps Thursday. The Treasury Department has been using accounting gimmicks to stave off default on the current $7.384 trillion debt limit, but by Thursday those cash reserves will be exhausted. An increase of $690 billion, and possibly more, is being discussed.

The fiscal 2005 omnibus is likely to include at least eight of the remaining nine annual spending bills -- Congress has previously approved four -- although pessimism remains that the Energy and Water spending bill can be completed. Staff negotiations have not gone well, and appropriators remain apart on funds for the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, as well as other issues such as nuclear weapons programs. Incoming Senate Minority Leader Reid opposes increased funding for the Yucca Mountain project.

House and Senate aides were working under the assumption that about $4 billion would be added to the omnibus, although the details were still in flux. An across-the-board cut of about 0.75 percent is in the works for non-defense, non-homeland security programs, which would free up $2.9 billion, and another $1 billion could be found by moving public housing authorities to a calendar-year budget. Other savings are under discussion, aides said, that could increase the add-on price tag. Programs funded by the fiscal 2005 Labor-HHS appropriations bill would receive about $1 billion more, while veterans' medical care would see an additional $1.2 billion and NASA another $800 million.

The remaining funds would be parceled out among several accounts, such as U.S. Postal Service biohazard defenses and the Bush administration's Millennium Challenge account foreign-aid initiative. There also are ongoing discussions about emergency designations to get around spending caps. For example, appropriators would add about $300 million for the Low Income Heating Emergency Assistance program -- designated a "contingent emergency" as in previous years, subject to administration approval -- and $7 million for the Postal Service.

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