Congress to miss appropriations goal

Though the House has passed all of its appropriations bills, the Senate has approved just four of them with less than a month before the fiscal year's end, Sept. 30.

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Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the appropriator shepherding the Education, Labor and Health and Human Services spending bill through the upper chamber, ruled out the chance of passing the remaining eight bills on time, a goal of the House and Senate appropriations chairmen, Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).

“We'll get some of them passed by Oct. 1, certainly not all of them,” Harkin told The Hill.

However, a House Democratic aide said that any predictions about the appropriations schedule may not hold once lawmakers finally return to Washington.

“Frankly, a miracle could happen and we could get all 12 bills done,” the aide said.

Democrats point out that their progress this year on moving appropriations bills is better than when Republicans controlled Congress during George W. Bush’s administration.

The Senate has passed bills funding operations for the Department of Homeland Security, the legislative branch, the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture. But the two biggest measures — the defense bill and Harkin's bill for the Education, Labor and HHS departments — have yet to receive Senate votes.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that senators will work on the spending bills as soon as they return from their monthlong recess next week. But Reid signaled that the upper chamber likely won't finish remaining spending legislation this month.

“It would be terrific if we could finish four more before the first of October,” Reid told reporters in August.

None of the appropriations bills have been reconciled in a House-Senate conference, though Senate Appropriations subcommittees have been working during the recess to set up a conference schedule for mid-September, a Senate Democratic Appropriations aide said. Should bills indeed remain after September, Congress will need to pass a continuing resolution to fund some government operations.

Harkin said that senators will push to approve as many bills as possible before healthcare reform legislation is expected to hit the Senate floor in October. "When that's finished, we'll go back to appropriations, if in fact there's something left to do," he said.

Harkin anticipates that climate change legislation, a top priority of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), will see floor action after senators finish the spending bills.

Democratic leaders are hoping to avoid an omnibus spending package that combines multiple appropriations bills. While an omnibus measure would hasten the appropriations process, some lawmakers don’t favor the approach because it subjects spending decisions to less public scrutiny. It also makes it easier for legislators to insert controversial provisions at the last second because omnibus measures are usually rushed through the legislative process.

“What I would not like to see is an omnibus bill, or something that doesn't allow all the work that was done by the committee to be reflected as such,” Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), a senior House appropriator, told The Hill.

In March, Inouye said that “an omnibus bill is no way to fund the federal government.”

Passing all the spending bills on time was always going to be a tough task. It last happened in 1994, which was also the last time the Democrats held both Congress and the White House. In recent years, the progress of the spending bills bogged down as lawmakers in the Democrat-led Congress clashed with then-President George W. Bush over discretionary spending levels. The appropriations process for 2009, which started during the Bush administration, wasn't completed until March, when Congress passed a $410 billion omnibus bill that fiscal conservatives criticized for containing nearly $8 billion in earmarks.

Some Democrats are still holding out hope that the fiscal 2010 bills could be passed on time.

“It will be a challenge, but [Sen. Inouye] will continue to push to get that done,” a Senate Democratic Appropriations Committee aide said.

Serrano said, "We're moving our bills along, and we're hopeful the Senate will do the same thing.”