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Frist ‘Absolutely’ Prepared to Cancel Recess, Call Saturday Session to Finish Omnibus Bill

The Senate proceeded slowly on an omnibus appropriations package Thursday, almost ensuring that next week’s scheduled Martin Luther King Jr. holiday recess would be canceled.

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who earlier in the week threatened to cancel the recess, would not rule out calling the chamber into a rare Saturday session.

“If we are unable to finish tonight or tomorrow or tomorrow night or Saturday, or decide that going into Saturday is not the appropriate way to address it, we absolutely, absolutely will be back here Tuesday morning to finish these appropriations bills,” Frist said in his opening floor speech.

The Majority Leader also predicted that the Senate would be working late into the night Thursday in an effort to make progress on the omnibus bill, which includes the 11 outstanding appropriations measures for fiscal 2003, which started Oct. 1, 2002.

“I look forward to a very, very productive day,” he said. “Depending on how productive that day is today and tonight, we may well go into the evening because we are working against … hopefully a coming recess.”

The process continues to be delayed because Democrats and Republicans remain at loggerheads over domestic funding levels.

With Republicans having unveiled Wednesday night their 1.6 percent across-the-board spending cut in the omnibus package — which is needed to keep the measure within the White House’s limits while funding election reform, drought relief and Medicare adjustments — Democrats prepared their counter-offensive Thursday afternoon.

At a press conference to tout aid to combat HIV/AIDS and famine in Africa, Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) said his party would offer specific amendments to offset the new Republican cut to the $386 billion package.

For example, Daschle said the move would take away $63 million from the FBI — equal to the elimination of 822 FBI agents — and cut $12 million from the Food Safety Inspection Service, essentially eliminating 266 food safety inspectors.

A Daschle aide said the Minority Leader was still debating whether to offer one amendment that would reverse the 1.6 percent cut or break down the issues and offer individual amendments.

On Wednesday Daschle had outlined four areas where Democrats would offer amendments: homeland security, education, Amtrak and agriculture.

For homeland security, outgoing Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) tried to boost funding by $5 billion, including $1.7 billion for state and local governments to spend on security measures, but had his efforts rebuffed 51-45.

Democrats were expected to try to add $6 billion for the president’s Leave No Child Behind Act and $1.5 billion to fully fund the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, as well as attempt to restore $486 million for Amtrak. Daschle was set to offer an amendment that would give $6 billion to $6.5 billion to an agriculture disaster assistance program that is identical to one the Senate adopted last year. Finally, Democrats were going to try to restore $300 million for a low-income energy assistance program.

Despite that tall order and his stern warning, Frist said he would consider keeping the recess but that “it is going to be incumbent upon us to be disciplined [and] to be focused.”

“All of our colleagues will want to talk on every single issue, and clearly they have that opportunity,” Frist said. “But I do ask both, in the consideration of the number of amendments on either side that we be disciplined on both sides of the aisle so that we can finish this bill before we leave.”

Frist’s warning was not unexpected, as the Majority Leader was following a time-honored tradition of threatening to cut into Members’ personal time in order to force action on languishing legislation. Former Majority Leaders Daschle and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) would often make similar statements when the chamber reached gridlock.

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