APPROPRIATIONS:

Omnibus likely fate of 2011 spending bills

House Democrats are planning to move a large 2011 omnibus appropriations bill rather than pass individual spending measures in the face of a dwindling legislative schedule and the threat of numerous Republican amendments, they said yesterday.

Senior members of the House Appropriations Committee said they plan to pass a bill before Oct. 1, when the current fiscal year expires, to fund the federal government at current spending levels through the November election. They will then work on an appropriations measure that encompasses all 12 spending bills during the lame-duck session after the elections. That omnibus would be based on the spending levels set in the appropriations bills passed by subcommittees earlier this year.

"That's the intention," said Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.), chairman of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee. "But we still have to work it out with the Senate."

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the Senate would take up a continuing resolution "in the next couple of weeks" but that the House needed to act first. The Senate will be occupied with a bill to support small businesses this week and Reid has already announced the Senate will take up the 2011 Defense Authorization Act next week.

That schedule only leaves a few days for the spending bills before the Oct. 1 deadline. Reid has left open the possibility of moving forward on individual 2011 spending bills if an agreement can be reached with Republicans.

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Democrats might approve a short continuing resolution to fund the government through the November elections and would likely move a larger omnibus or continuing resolution after the elections. But the continuing resolution would have to be agreed to by both parties, and Cochran indicated some compromise might be necessary.

"I think they have made some real mistakes and are making some real mistakes," Cochran said. "We'll just have to see what happens."

The delicate negotiation process between the two legislative bodies may be even more complicated this year as Reid said he would cap the Senate budget at about $1.108 trillion, or $20 billion below the president's request and $13 billion below the House levels. If lawmakers move forward with the Senate's lower overall budget numbers, appropriators would need to find an additional $6 billion in cuts (E&E Daily, Aug. 4).

Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) have been pushing a proposal since January that would limit government spending to $1.108 trillion this year, $1.121 trillion in 2012 and about $1.139 trillion in 2013.

"My understanding before we left was that there was an acknowledgement that the top line number would be the McCaskill-Sessions numbers," McCaskill said this week.

Sessions was a bit more skeptical. "Yeah, it's not done yet and they get in the rooms and they can't agree and they don't want to cut anything and figure out a way to tack it on and claim it is within the numbers but it isn't within the numbers. That is a pattern for many years around here," he said.

A ticking clock

The Senate Appropriations Committee has managed to pass all but three funding measures: Defense, Legislative Branch and Interior and Environment bills. The panel will markup the Defense and Legislative Branch spending bills tomorrow but Democrats postponed consideration of the bill funding the Interior Department and U.S. EPA only a day after the markup was announced.

Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she needed additional time to consider a last-minute request by the White House to increase the budget for offshore drilling oversight by $100 million. Environmental groups were also concerned that the markup could have included amendments to limit EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act (E&ENews PM, Sept. 14).

The House Appropriations Committee has had its share of problems with amendments and has passed the 2011 budgets for Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and Transportation and Housing.

The committee postponed the markup of the 2011 Homeland Security and Agriculture spending bills in July after Republicans offered a significant number of amendments, including several to cut overall spending. A spokesman for Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) said lawmakers canceled the markup because they could not fit it in with other efforts, including three bills on the floor and the Defense spending markup in subcommittee at the end of July.

Ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) sent a letter to Obey last week urging Democrats to immediately cut federal spending back to 2008 levels for the next year.

"The spending cuts would be enacted now, to avert the possibility of Congress using a lame duck session to pass a bloated spending bill for next year after the November elections, and would include common-sense exceptions for programs affecting our seniors, veterans, and national security," Lewis wrote.

A Lewis spokesman said neither Obey nor Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has responded to the letter's request or been in communication about a possible schedule for the appropriations bills.

"No schedule has been set for considering appropriations bills, as far as we can tell," spokesman Jim Specht said. "Congressman Lewis believes that the majority has abandoned all responsibility for the normal budget process."

Obey has not decided anything yet in terms of a schedule since members just got back in town, a committee spokesman said.

A House leadership aide said the House would "work closely with the Senate to pass the [continuing resolution] before Sept. 30," but would not provide further comments on a schedule or possibilities for an omnibus.