It appeared increasingly likely Tuesday that Congress will need to approve a stopgap spending bill in order to prevent a government shutdown after Jan. 15.
Despite progress by negotiators on a $1 trillion omnibus spending package for fiscal 2014, Democrats and Republicans remain at odds on several issues, including funding for ObamaCare and the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.
“That’s a fading dream,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said.
Mikulski met Tuesday with House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.). Afterward, she said a deal could be announced as late as this weekend, leaving the House and Senate virtually no time to pass the bill by Jan. 15 under regular procedures.
“An omnibus is big. It’s over $1 trillion. It’s over 134 riders,” she added. “You have two houses, you have parties within the parties, this is really complicated ... This is not a linear process, it’s more like an amoeba.”
Lawmakers had hoped that the two-year budget deal negotiated by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and approved by Congress in December would allow appropriators to iron out their differences and move a spending bill forward.
Republicans in particular want to avoid another government shutdown, which damaged the party's image badly in October.
The omnibus bill fleshes out the $1.012 trillion top-line budget number from December’s deal. It splits the difference between the $1.058 trillion Senate level and the $967 billion House total.
Rogers on Tuesday was slightly more upbeat after meeting with Mikulski and said the country does not need to fear a repeat of the 16-day government shutdown.
“I think we’re making really good progress. I’m optimistic,” Rogers said, adding that “roughly” six of 12 parts of the bill are done.
“We’ll see how things go,” he said of the possibility of a stopgap measure.
The six parts “virtually” done, according to Mikulski's staff, are the Defense; Agriculture; Transportation and Housing and Urban Development; Military Construction and Veterans Affairs; Legislative Branch; and Commerce, Justice and Science bills.
Mikulski said that her first principle is avoiding a yearlong stopgap bill, her second principle is protecting national security and her third is targeted spending for job creation such as in the transportation measure.
She appeared to open the door to including at least some conservative riders in the bill, saying she is working to limit their number.
“Our subcommittee chairmen have really done 90 percent of the work," she said. "We are now at 10 percent, but this last 10 percent is the hardest, like in any negotiation."
Funding for Dodd-Frank remains a difficult issue, Mikulski said.
The House has sought to deny the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission millions of dollars in new funding to implement the law.
On ObamaCare, the issue that led to the shutdown, Mikulski signaled appropriators may argue that the omnibus is not the best place to solve the hot-button dispute over the law.
“I think ObamaCare will be unresolved for a long time. It’s how we can resolve some of the issues in the bill,” she said.
Earlier in the day, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs a subcommittee overseeing health spending, told reporters both sides should be able to agree on an ObamaCare compromise.
“We are working our way through it. There are ways of getting things done if people agree to be reasonable,” Harkin said.
Harkin’s bill contains some of the most contentious issues, along with that governing the Environmental Protection Agency.