Spending bills on schedule--for now
The table is set for reversing the seemingly never-ending cycle of omnibus bills and continuing resolutions, but there will be many opportunities for the process to unravel.
The House is ahead of schedule on fiscal 2006 appropriations, the Senate is getting an earlier jump than usual, there are fewer bills to deal with and the new Appropriations Committee chairmen in both chambers are eager for a successful start.
The table is set for reversing the seemingly never-ending cycle of omnibus bills and continuing resolutions -- or so it would appear. But current and former congressional aides say this year brings with it the same old complications and possibly new ones. Bottom line: don't make those travel plans for Oct. 1 just yet; indeed, some are suggesting Thanksgiving might be more realistic.
One source of friction is that President Bush's pledge to cut discretionary spending for programs not related to security is bumping up against political realities, particularly in the Senate. "You just have to see how these very, very austere bills are going to do in the Senate," particularly with regard to social services spending, said James Dyer, former longtime staff director for the House Appropriations Committee.
That chamber also takes decidedly longer to consider individual spending bills on the floor. Even in a non-election year, partisan politics might make for lengthy floor battles. Expected action on budget reconciliation legislation in September adds to the workload, and structural mismatches between the House and Senate Appropriations committees might add to the confusion.
But based on the House's swift pace so far, "the early returns are encouraging," Dyer noted. Added a House Appropriations Committee spokesman, "We are committed to try to get all the bills done by the end of the fiscal year."
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was even more pointed, saying "never again" would there be an omnibus, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., also have expressed their desire to move bills though regular order.
There is precedent for that. As recently as fiscal 1995, lawmakers completed each spending bill individually by Sept. 30, according to the Congressional Research Service. But a more sobering statistic is that lawmakers have averaged completing just 2.9 spending bills before the start of a new fiscal year from fiscal 1986 to fiscal 2005.
Beneath the surface, signs of cracks in the get-it-done strategy are appearing. While House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., is aiming to complete work on all 11 bills by the Independence Day recess, which would be an astonishingly fast start, the Senate is likely to finish work on only two bills by that time.
That is only one ahead of last year's schedule, when lawmakers in lame-duck session hastily assembled a nine-bill, $388.4 billion omnibus that was fraught with controversy. The House passed 12 of 13 individual bills, while the Senate did not debate seven bills that ended up thrown into the omnibus in conference.
That experience saw appropriators resort to an across-the-board cut for the fifth time in six fiscal years to offset additional spending, and the inclusion of some objectionable provisions many lawmakers had not had time to read. Afterward, House GOP leaders drove a substantial reorganization of the Appropriations Committees, designed to eliminate inefficiencies and weed out unwanted proposals.
But in the Senate, where legislative action is more calendar-driven than in the tightly controlled House, it takes much longer to consider individual spending bills. And with a politically charged atmosphere lingering due to disputes over Bush nominees, Democrats might decide to make appropriations bills a battleground for their pet priorities.
The Senate schedule also faces complications from within the GOP. The $843 billion fiscal 2006 spending cap represents an increase below what is necessary to keep up with inflation. To that end, Cochran is preparing to recommend initial reductions from the president's requests for defense and foreign aid accounts, with the money going instead to domestic programs. Lewis took a similar path in the House.
The proposed cuts are an especially unpalatable prospect for moderates like Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who is eyeing accounting maneuvers to boost education and health research programs.
That would set up a conference battle with the House, which usually objects to Senate efforts to include additional spending through what the House has dubbed "gimmicks."
But the Labor-HHS bill is always among the toughest to move across the Senate floor, and an additional factor this year might be Specter's efforts to bolster stem-cell research. Bush has threatened to veto stand-alone House-passed legislation to provide increased stem-cell funds, and Frist has not committed to bringing up that measure.
To break the stalemate, Specter hinted at a recent news conference he might try to push stem-cell legislation through the appropriations process.
Inclusion of stem-cell provisions in the Senate's Labor-HHS or other spending bill might subject it to filibuster from Senate conservatives, and "could absolutely tube us" in terms of completing the 2006 process on time, a House GOP aide said.