By Walter Alarkon - 12/09/09 03:19 AM EST
The package, presented as a conference report, leaves out unrelated contentious items that Democrats say they need to pass this year; a debt limit increase and extensions of expiring unemployment and COBRA benefits. The last spending bill yet to go to conference, the bill for the Pentagon, is now the likely vehicle for pushing through those items.
Lawmakers had hoped to pass the six bills separately, but appropriators chose to package them together to expedite their passage. The House hopes to vote on the bill before the end of the week, according to a spokesman for House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.). The Senate could vote on it soon after House passage.
The only bill yet to go to conference is the Defense appropriations bill, which typically gets bipartisan support.
Knowing that lawmakers are loath to oppose the Defense bill, Senior Democrats have signaled that they may attach to it an extension of unemployment and COBRA healthcare aid, which is necessary to prevent jobless Americans from losing those benefits in 2010.
Obey, when asked whether the Defense bill would carry other legislation, said: "I do not know whether we will have unemployment insurance extended or not; it will depend on whether Congress has a conscience."
Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) also left open the chance that a jobless insurance extension would pass with the Defense bill.
"Well, it depends on how we feel," Inouye told The Hill when asked about it Tuesday.
Other outstanding legislation that may be attached to the Defense bill includes a raise to the $12.1 trillion debt limit and extensions of tax statutes set to expire in January.
With the federal debt at $12 trillion, the debt limit increase must be passed soon to avoid the country's default.
Among the taxes to expire in 2010 is the estate tax, which generates about $20 billion in annual revenue.
The House has passed both a debt limit raise and an estate tax extension, but the Senate, busy with work on its healthcare bill, has yet to schedule when they would take up both items.
Congress must pass the Defense bill by Dec. 18 to avoid a government shutdown. That's the expiration date for a continuing resolution that allows government agencies to operate without their appropriations bills signed into law. Appropriators declined to include another continuing resolution in the minibus that would have allowed them to put off passage of the Defense measure into next year.
House Republicans criticized the Democrats for failing to pass the spending bills separately and for resorting to another minibus package months after the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1.
“Here we are, two weeks before Christmas -- and 10 weeks after the beginning of the fiscal year -- demonstrating to the world that Congress remains incapable of doing its work,” said Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.), the top House GOP appropriator.
Lewis said that the House Republicans wouldn't support the Defense spending bill if it is used to push through other legislative items.
A group of centrist Democrats led by Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.) and Sen. Kent Conrad (N.D.) have said separately that they won't support any attempt to attach the debt limit increase to other legislation unless they're allowed a vote on special fiscal process aimed at making it easier for Congress to produce legislation reducing the debt.
This story was updated on December 10.