Budget battle brewing over trillion dollar lame-duck omnibus appropriations bill

While Republicans and Democrats fight for control of Congress, a behind-the-scenes budget fight is brewing over an omnibus appropriations bill that lawmakers may need to consider quickly upon their return after the midterm election.

Lobbyists and congressional aides say Democratic appropriators are mulling a 12-bill omnibus to fund the government in 2011 after the current stopgap measure expires in early December.

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Republicans complain that they are being shut out of negotiations and are sounding warnings that Democrats will try to jam a $1 trillion bill through Congress immediately following the midterm elections.

“We have not been told a single thing,” a House GOP aide said. “There has not been one phone call from the majority to us.”

Several lobbyists said Republicans haven’t been involved in discussions and are predicting a partisan battle in the lame-duck session over the omnibus.

Election-year politics and concerns over spending prevented Democrats from passing any of the 12 annual appropriations bills before lawmakers left Washington at the end of September. Congress passed a short-term continuing resolution to keep the federal government running only through Dec. 3, meaning lawmakers will have to act quickly in the post-election lame-duck session, which begins Nov. 15.

While Republicans have pushed for appropriations bills to be considered individually, the two most likely scenarios are some kind of catch-all spending bill or another continuing resolution that would fund the government into the 112th Congress. An omnibus comprising all the bills, however, could be politically difficult, since it would push the top-line spending amount past $1 trillion.

The GOP is already hammering Democrats for pushing tax cut votes until after the election, and alarm about a looming $1 trillion spending bill could wreak havoc for lawmakers on the campaign trail.

The politics of the debate will also be affected by whichever party wins control of the House in November.

Democratic aides say that discussions thus far have only occurred on the staff level and that a range of options remain on the table, including an omnibus. “No decisions have been made,” said Ellis Brachman, a spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee. “The Republicans have been invited to any discussions we’ve had. They can choose whether to come or not.”

The two biggest points of contention are likely to be the overall spending level and whether earmarks are included. The House GOP leader, Rep. John Boehner (Ohio), joined more than four dozen Republicans in signing a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) earlier this month calling for no earmarks to be included in the omnibus legislation.

“Taxpayers deserve to have appropriations legislation considered in an open and transparent process,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter, which was drafted by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a prominent earmark foe. “At a minimum, taxpayers should be protected from thousands of unvetted earmarks, produced by a process driven by a spoils system, being stuffed into any end-of-year appropriations measure and shielded from review.”

Democrats may balk at that request, particularly if they lose control of the House. The omnibus would be the last opportunity to fund pet projects while the party has full control of the budget process.

"Democrats are hell-bent on getting their earmarks," said one appropriations lobbyist.

The ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.), and other GOP lawmakers have also called for overall spending to return to 2008 levels.

Roxana Tiron and Bob Cusack contributed to this report