Lawmakers’ concerns about deficit slow passage of annual spending bills

Election-year deficit concerns are slowing the annual appropriations process as lawmakers wrestle with how much spending is palatable on everything from healthcare to homeland security.

The House had passed just one of the 12 annual spending bills before Thursday’s vote on the Transportation-HUD bill — leaving it far behind last year’s pace — while the Senate has yet to pass any.

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The chance of quickly clearing the measures for President Obama’s signature has always been small, as lawmakers have had their eye on the campaign trail for months. But the odds have become longer given worries over the $13 trillion debt and projections of deficits that average nearly $1 trillion for the next decade.

“The deficit has an impact on everything — on jobs, on infrastructure — everything,” said Rep. Frank Wolf (Va.), a senior GOP appropriator. “It is like the taproot that everything else comes out of.”

The last time all the bills were passed separately and on time was 1994. Congress has resorted to omnibus bills to help finish the appropriations process in each of the past four years, and that is all but certain to be the case this year, too.

Appropriators got a late start in crafting the 2011 spending bills due to the lack of a full-fledged budget resolution, which normally marks the start, in the spring, of the appropriations process for the next fiscal year.

House Democrats, wary of voting in an election year on a budget showing trillion-dollar deficits, moved forward instead in July with a measure that dealt only with spending for next year. The House “budget enforcement resolution” caps 2011 discretionary spending at $7 billion below what Obama has called for.

Lawmakers are now marking up the spending bills, but they remain split over spending levels, especially on the Senate Appropriations Committee, where bipartisanship had been a long tradition.

Senate Democrats have set a 2011 discretionary spending cap of $1.114 trillion — $14 billion less than Obama’s proposal. But Republicans want spending to be $20 billion lower than the president’s plan, which would be the same amount for 2011 that Democrats supported in their five-year budget, passed last year.

“If we were to do [spending at that level], I think we would send a message to the country that the Appropriations Committee is concerned about the debt that’s been going up over the past several years,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said Thursday during the markup of several appropriations bills.

GOP senators said they won’t vote for any spending measure that isn’t in line with the lower cap, making it unlikely that the bills will find the 60 votes necessary to move forward soon.

House Democrats, who last year had approved all 12 annual spending bills before the August recess, have pointed to the Senate as the cause for their slower progress this year. House Appropriations Committee Chairman David

Obey (D-Wis.) said his committee’s pace has depended on the pace in the Senate, which passed just four of the bills before last year’s August recess.

With big deficits expected for the rest of this decade, appropriators said they’re bracing for less spending in future years.

“Everyone is in unanimous agreement that there’ll be some kind of a freeze along the lines of what the president has said,” said Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), referring to Obama’s plan to hold non-security discretionary spending at current levels for the next three years.

“There’s going to be tight allocations on education, healthcare, affordable housing, environmental issues,” added Fattah. “We’re going to make decisions ever more weighty. That’s a common understanding of where we’re going to be not just this year, but increasingly so as we go forward, as the debt rises.”