Senate races to finish spending bills

Senate leaders are planning a furious push this month to pass all spending measures for 2010, hoping to complete work on as many as possible before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidBlack Caucus demands Flint funding from GOP Report: Intelligence officials probing Trump adviser's ties to Russia White House preps agencies for possible shutdown MORE (D-Nev.) wants floor votes this week on three of the Senate’s eight spending bills that require action. After the Senate votes on a tourism promotion bill and a Justice Department nomination, it is tentatively scheduled to take up appropriations measures for Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, Interior and Environment, and Commerce, Justice and Science, according to Reid’s office.

ADVERTISEMENT
Also this week, the Senate Appropriations Committee is marking up the defense spending bill, which would complete committee business on the 12 appropriations bills for the year.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) had set a goal of getting all 12 measures signed into law by the fiscal year’s end, a feat that hasn’t happened since 1994. But with appropriators starting slow because of the late release of the Obama administration’s first budget and a packed legislative agenda, Congress is all but certain to fall short of that goal. While the House passed all 12 of its bills before the August recess, the Senate has passed only four, and none have gone to conference.

Finishing Senate work on the spending bills in September would allow Congress to go to conference in the fall and send some to President Barack ObamaBarack ObamaTrump's new debate challenge: Silence WATCH LIVE: Obama speaks at African American Museum opening Obama talks racial tension at African-American museum opening MORE before the end of the month — possibly all of them before the calendar year ends. That would avoid the need for an omnibus spending measure and allow Obey and Inouye to declare a victory.

The push would also clear the Senate floor in October for the healthcare debate.

A Senate Democratic Appropriations aide said to expect the outstanding spending bills to move quickly to conference once they win full Senate passage.

He acknowledged that passing the bills on time will be a challenge, but said Inouye is still pushing to meet that goal.

“We still hope to get all eight remaining appropriations bills on and off the floor by the end of the month,” the aide said.

Sources on and off Capitol Hill said that Senate leaders are aiming to pass the defense appropriations bill next week to allow a conference with the House this month. The sources said that the defense bill, seen as the spending measure that must be approved on time, could be packaged with other spending bills as a “minibus” in order to ease their passage. Congress would also pass a stopgap spending bill to keep 2009 funding levels for all departments whose spending bills aren’t approved by Sept. 30.

The appropriations process followed a similar path last year, when lawmakers passed a minibus in late September consisting of three spending measures: those for the Defense Department, the Homeland Security Department and Military Construction and Veterans’ Affairs. Democrats in Congress didn’t pass the remaining nine bills until March 2009, when Obama was in office.

A long delay in the appropriations process this year could put more of the spotlight on the increased government spending under the new White House and Democrat-led Congress, said Allen Schick, a budget expert and professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

The $787 billion stimulus bill and the $410 billion omnibus passed in the first months of the Obama presidency “kind of set in motion a higher spending level,” Schick said.

“The question is, can this be sustained?” he said.

Congress deserves some credit for reverting back to a semblance of regular order this year in the appropriations process and potentially avoiding the need for an omnibus spending bill, said James Horney, director of federal fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Last year, the spending bills stalled because Democratic leadership and President George W. Bush couldn’t agree over funding levels. Spending for individual departments didn’t receive much scrutiny from lawmakers at the committee level, because the bills were eventually cobbled into big omnibus measures.

ADVERTISEMENT
“I think people [this year] feel it’s a better process than where you end up with huge bills that people haven’t seen,” Horney said.

While Democratic leaders are optimistic about quickly pushing the bills through the Senate, others are less sure that can happen. A spokeswoman for Sen. Barbara MikulskiBarbara MikulskiBlack Caucus demands Flint funding from GOP GOP puts shutdown squeeze play on Dems Overnight Finance: McConnell offers 'clean' funding bill | Dems pan proposal | Flint aid, internet measure not included | More heat for Wells Fargo | New concerns on investor visas MORE (D-Md.), the appropriator in charge of the Commerce-Justice-Science bill, said it’s unclear whether the Senate can meet Reid’s schedule of passing three spending bills in four days.

Of the three spending measures likely to come up for votes this week, the Commerce-Justice-Science bill is most likely to generate contentious debate.

The House bill restricts the Justice Department from using any money to close the Guantánamo Bay prison and send detainees to the U.S. mainland. The Senate version does not have the restriction, but it refused Obama’s request for $60 million for the prison’s closure. The House version also left out the money.

Roxana Tiron contributed to this article.