Lawmakers making June approps push

A major push has begun on Capitol Hill to pass a number of spending bills in the next month and put Congress in position to achieve a primary job requirement for the first time in 15 years.

House and Senate lawmakers have not met the October deadline for passing all 12 appropriations bills since 1994, but this year they are optimistic it can be done with President Obama and Democrats running the federal government.

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The latest signs came this week. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he’d like the upper chamber to finish work on a number of the bills before lawmakers leave for their July 4 break. Meanwhile, the Appropriations committees in both chambers are holding hearings featuring five Cabinet secretaries and other administration officials to testify on the president’s budget request.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified Tuesday in the House. On Wednesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan goes before lawmakers in both chambers, Energy Secretary Steven Chu appears before a House Appropriations subcommittee and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar testifies in the upper chamber. On Thursday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and FBI Director Robert Mueller also testify before Senate appropriators.

Both House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) are aiming to pass the spending bills before Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. Obey has set a particularly ambitious goal for the House, calling on colleagues to approve all 12 bills before the August recess.

But, as Reid noted in his remarks this week, the bills will move only “with Republican cooperation.”

GOP appropriators share the hope that the spending bills for 2010 will get to the president in a timely fashion.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said that it’s possible to pass bills funding the Defense Department, legislative branch operations and the State Department and foreign operations by July.

Asked if he thought it was feasible to pass all 12 bills by this fall, Gregg said, “I sure hope so.”

Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said that he couldn’t predict whether the appropriations process would be able to avoid the kind of issues that have slowed down the process in the past.

Last year, the process slowed amid high gas prices and a fiery debate over offshore drilling restrictions. Another unexpected issue could pop up this year, Cochran said.

The dozen appropriations bills for fiscal 2010 will account for $1.09 trillion in discretionary spending allowed by the $3.5 trillion budget resolution, which passed both chambers on a party-line vote in April. Discretionary spending in fiscal 2009 is approximately $1.01 trillion.

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“It’s a feasible goal because you have one-party government, you have large majorities in both houses, you have a completed budget resolution,” said Jim Dyer, a former staff director for Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee. “[Democrats] also got the publicly expressed desire on the part of both [Appropriations] chairmen to move this process as fast as they can.”

Passing the spending bills on time may not have much of a political benefit; voters care more about healthcare and other issues that directly affect them, Dyer said. But getting the spending bills out of the way will allow lawmakers and the administration to focus on next year’s budget process, the first that Obama and his aides will have a year to prepare for, and will give federal agencies the ability to provide services in a timely, orderly way, Dyer said.

“You’re looking for an uninterrupted flow of government,” he said.

Passing the bills separately could also allay the concerns of fiscally conservative lawmakers, who view rushed omnibus packages as vehicles for wasteful earmarks.

Despite the high volume of contentious items on this year’s legislative agenda — healthcare reform, climate change legislation and a Supreme Court nomination — finding time to vote on the spending bills may not be a problem for Democratic leaders, Dyer said. Democrats in the House have learned to control debate tightly on the House floor, blocking GOP parliamentary maneuvers to stall legislation, and Reid indicated he’d set aside floor time for the spending measures.

“If there’s an impediment out there, I don’t see it,” said Dyer, now a consultant at Clark & Weinstock, a Washington lobbying firm.

Two centrist Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee who may be key to winning the necessary bipartisan support for spending bills expressed cautious optimism that the deadlines will be met.

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Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said that it will come down to GOP willingness to cooperate.

“Sen. Inouye is in a strong position, with Sen. Reid’s support, to have an orderly process,” she said.

Landrieu called on her GOP colleagues to “allow for it and not try to stop and thwart everything.” She said that Democrats and the Obama administration are working to put the country back on “a sound fiscal footing” that dissipated under President Bush.

“I know it’s frustrating for [Republicans] to be involved with an administration that’s really trying to get government back on track and working along with the private sector, but they need to get over it,” she said.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said he was in favor of moving ahead with appropriations bills, especially the legislative branch spending bill that he will help shepherd as chairman of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee.

But Nelson, who bucked his party by voting against the $3.5 trillion budget resolution, acknowledged that it’s unknown how quickly lawmakers can get to each of the issues on the legislative docket.

“It’s hard to deal with more than one major issue at a time — I don’t care how many you’re working on — because of the time factor, because of the energy factor,” he said.