Senate Dems plan to move $1 trillion omnibus in December

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to move a $1 trillion spending bill in December, a strategy that will spark a backlash from Tea Party conservatives. 

If conservatives torpedo the omnibus measure, Reid and other Democratic leaders would likely be forced to accept another long stopgap spending measure or risk a government shutdown when funding runs out at midnight Dec. 17. 

The federal government has been operating on stopgap spending measures since the fall of last year, and many lawmakers are tired of ceding their oversight authority. 

Members of the once-all-powerful Appropriations committees want to pass regular spending bills, allowing them to effect policy changes and tweak federal accounts. 

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During a conference call with reporters on Monday, Reid said that appropriators have done too much work to default to another yearlong stopgap. There’s not enough time to pass the spending bills individually or in smaller packages known as minibuses.

“We hope to work this process through so we won’t do a CR,” he said, using an abbreviation for a continuing resolution to fund government. “We have already passed a number of appropriations bills. We would put all the others into one package and try to get them done.”

Tea Party-affiliated conservatives say they will do everything they can to blow up the bill, even though GOP leaders agreed in August to funding levels for fiscal 2012 and 2013. 

Conservative GOP aides say a massive omnibus package would starkly illustrate how much money Congress continues to spend after the negotiations of April and July, which averted a government shutdown and national default.

“If we can’t cut discretionary spending compared to the prior year when state and local governments are slashing budgets big time, if we concede we can’t lower our budget at all, I don’t think voters will find that acceptable, especially when we Republicans made so many promises,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), an outspoken conservative who is running for the Senate.

Flake, who for years was an antagonist of the House Appropriations Committee, joined the panel at the beginning of the year to keep closer tabs on its work. 

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has already had to abandon his 2010 campaign proposal to draft spending bills by agency instead of lumping departments together into appropriations bills that often total hundreds of pages. 

With less than a month left until Christmas, Boehner and other leaders recognize that sprawling omnibus bills are the only way to get all their must-pass legislation finished in time. 

Congress must also address the expiration of the Alternative Minimum Tax patch, a variety of business tax breaks, the freeze in scheduled cuts to doctors’ Medicare payments, the payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits. 

An omnibus appropriations bill could provide the so-called “last train out of the station” to get these priorities through Congress by the deadline. But combining the appropriations bills with the tax-relief extensions and unemployment benefits could push the entire size of the package to nearly $1.4 trillion, which would be very tough to pass in the Republican-controlled House. 

Reid, Boehner, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and President Obama agreed in August to set discretionary spending levels for fiscal 2012 and 2013 at $1.043 trillion and $1.047 trillion, respectively. 

The bipartisan deal, which raised the nation’s debt limit, also allowed for $11.3 billion in emergency spending to be added each year on top of those levels. 

Conservative House Republicans say the addition of emergency funds will push the total amount of federal discretionary spending in 2012 above the $1.050 billion established for 2011. That, they claim, is unacceptable, especially in the wake of the Tea Party election of 2010. 

Members of the conservative Republican Study Committee complained angrily about spending levels at a private meeting with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) earlier this month. 

It appears the pressure has begun to weigh on leaders and appropriators. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said he will hold the discretionary spending level, including emergency spending, at $1.05 trillion for fiscal 2012, which Senate Democrats see as a breach of the August agreement. 

“We believe there was 100 percent clarity when we reached the agreement in August. Any deviation is going back on that agreement,” said a Democratic aide. 

But Reid and other Democratic leaders might be willing to accept a cut in emergency funding if it means saving the appropriations bills and avoiding another continuing resolution. 

Reid’s plan is to convene members of the Senate and House Appropriations committees to hash out their differences on program spending levels and policy riders. 

“We’re going to try to have … some type of overall bill [and] make sure that there are meetings — which have already taken place in many respects, with subcommittee chairs in the House and the Senate,” Reid said Monday. 

House Republican appropriators want to include riders defunding the implementation of healthcare reform and Wall Street reform, to name a few under consideration. 

Specifically, they want to limit funding levels at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Securities and Exchange Commission and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, according to GOP sources. 

Riders wrecked Reid’s earlier plan of passing the appropriations bills in smaller packages. 

An attempt to pass the Financial Services, State and Foreign Operations and Energy and Water Development bills as a single measure failed before Thanksgiving when Senate Republicans insisted on voting on a slew of policy amendments. 

Conservative lawmakers and aides say they relish a fight over an omnibus spending bill because it will draw public attention to hundreds of billions in spending that might otherwise pass Congress with little attention. 

On Nov. 18, Obama signed a package of three appropriations bills containing $128 billion in discretionary spending. A package of the remaining nine bills would exceed $900 billion. 

A GOP aide said House and Senate conservatives prefer an omnibus to several minibuses because it gives them a big target to attack. 

“It brings all the attention to it and it becomes a big spending fight,” said a conservative GOP aide. “Appropriators hate the omnibus because it shows to the public the amount we’re spending. It’s an easier target.”

— Posted at 3:46 p.m. and updated at 8:32 p.m.