Omnibus likely after spending bills stall

Congress appears to be on track to wrap the remaining nine annual appropriations bills for 2012 into a single omnibus when it returns to work after Thanksgiving.

Senate leaders had hoped to break the bills into smaller minibuses but that strategy has run into trouble.

The omnibus approach has been favored by House leaders, who have wanted to limit the number of potentially embarrassing spending votes this fall.

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Senate Democrats and Republicans, on the other hand, had wanted to avoid an omnibus.

Appropriators have been patting themselves on the back this week for being able to pass three of the 2012 spending bills.

On Friday, President Obama signed into law a bill, known as the first “minibus,” providing $128 billion in funds for the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development.  It extended funding to the other agencies until Dec. 16.

GOP leaders faced an embarrassing defection of 101 conservative members who were angered that party leaders had not been able to cut more than $7 billion in government spending in 2012 compared to 2011. It is an experience GOP leadership does not want to repeat multiple times.

Senate appropriators, by contrast, prefer to move spending bills individually and in small packages so as to allow for more debate and amendments.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tried to move a second minibus this week but this attempt failed.

The bill contained funding for the department of Energy and government water projects. Reid tried to add on bills funding the State department and financial services agencies.

Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) objected to consideration of the minibus because it contained provisions that allow Cuba to have greater access to the U.S. banking system.  Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) objected due to the overall spending level.

Reid decided to put the second minibus aside in the face of this resistance and to proceed to the defense authorization bill, which will also take up floor time when the Senate returns after Thanksgiving.

Sources said that Democrats and Republicans are trying to work on a deal to limit the number of amendments on the base Energy and Water bill but there has been no clear indication of when it will come back to the floor.

This makes an omnibus the most likely option for the rest of the bills since the current temporary spending bill lasts only until Dec. 16, aides said.

The most likely vehicle would be the Defense appropriations bill, which generally has momentum because lawmakers do not want to be seen withholding funding for the troops.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) who faces a tough negotiation with Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) over funding for the Environmental Protection Agency said this week that he “hopes” the Defense bill is able to “carry” the controversial EPA title.

The GOP is pushing for dozens of environmental riders in that bill and the White House has vowed to push back.

A less likely scenario emerges if the Energy bill passes as a stand-alone bill.

At that point, the Energy and Water bill and the Veterans Affairs bill, which already passed the Senate, could be transformed into two minibuses to carry the other bills.

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