Spending ‘normality’ unlikely to last

The Senate over the course of four days this week came very close to wrapping up work on three appropriations bills in a much-touted return to “normality.” 

Spending on agriculture, commerce, trade, justice, transportation and housing got the semblance of scrutiny on the floor and senators were given the chance to consider several dozen amendments to the combined bills, including a successful GOP amendment to stop farm subsidies to millionaires.

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The body then voted overwhelmingly to move to final passage when the Senate returns next month.

“This is something for those of us who have been in the Senate a while that brings back a lot of memories. This is the way we did things in the past. It is difficult, but it moves legislation,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said early Friday morning as voting continued.

Don’t expect the open process to continue, say sources both on Capitol Hill and off.

Called the 3-in-1 “minibus” because it combined three domestic spending bills – for the Department of Agriculture, for the departments of Commerce, Justice and Science, and for the departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development – it is very likely the last such measure of its kind for this year.

Even though the August debt ceiling deal set the top-line 2012 spending number at $1.043 trillion, Congress is struggling to process spending legislation without resorting to catch-all measures rammed through under looming government shutdowns.

Appropriations aides said the most likely scenario now is a House-Senate conference on the minibus followed by House passage and Senate re-passage.

Staff will spend next week preparing for a conference since the final amendments on the minibus have been mapped out, an aide said. A conference on the bill could wrap up in a matter of days.

Beyond that, because government funding runs out Nov. 18, a stopgap continuing resolution lasting until the middle of December is basically inevitable.

“It is obvious they are going to have to have another CR,” said appropriations-watcher Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

There is no talk about the CR being combined with the minibus at this point, a House aide said.

The House and Senate have passed one bill, that funding the department of Veteran Affairs and military construction. It could become the vehicle for a CR.

The eight leftover bills would then most likely be packaged into an omnibus measure.

Aides caution that a second “minibus” has not been ruled out at this point and one could conceivably be done packaging the defense and energy titles. The key to this is floor time.

Several aides said that if the Senate and House could free up enough floor time in November, the remaining eight bills could be done by then in some form. A GOP aide said that Reid’s decision to hold weekly votes on elements of President Obama’s Jobs Act and to possibly turn to Federal Aviation Administration authorization would hog floor time.

Reid pushed back against that on Friday when asked by a reporter.

“All the time on the president’s jobs bill this week took about two hours of our time. I think we can afford that,” he said.

Ellis said that Reid wants to move minibuses to make the Senate appear relevant again on spending. Other aides said Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could not sell an omnibus to his caucus and supports trying to break the bills into manageable chunks open to amendment.

The “minibus” moved through relatively quickly and could be approved when the Senate returns to work on Nov. 1.

Its quick movement was only made possible by the fact the bills were the least controversial of the eleven remaining appropriations bills, leading to a relatively painless amendments agreement with McConnell.

Bills governing health, financial services, and the environment are far more controversial and contain riders dear to the GOP base such as those defunding healthcare reform, the Dodd-Frank act and dozens of environmental measures.

For this reason, the simplest path appears to be an omnibus, aide said, despite the desire of appropriators to follow regular order.

“The Senate's plan to move minibus appropriations bills is ambitious - seemingly overly so. Time is running out,” commented Juliane Sullivan, a former aide to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay and appropriations expert at Akin Gump.

She noted that House leadership may view one big whip effort on an omnibus as less painful than dealing with multiple minibuses.

“From the House perspective, I'm not sure one vote on a massive spending bill is much less palatable than three votes on slightly smaller massive spending bills. You'll still have the ‘vote no caucus’ unwilling to leverage their yes vote for more conservative bills. I do expect riders to be part of the negotiation and, in spite of White House blanket opposition, I expect some policy to survive the process,” she said.

Omnibus legislation can produce waste and is best avoided, Ellis said.

“Things are moved at an accelerated pace at the end…you get drowned in paper,” he said.

The rush job allows members to insert misplaced spending, even in an era where earmarks are off the table, he said.

“What always ends up happening is you find buried treasure,” Ellis said.