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Omnibus May Die

If House and Senate appropriators cannot reach a deal on a $391 billion omnibus fiscal 2003 spending bill by Valentine’s Day, Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said Wednesday he would scrap the omnibus and push through a long-term continuing resolution to fund the government at 2002 levels until Oct. 1.

Stevens said there would be no need for the omnibus after the scheduled Presidents’ Day recess the week of Feb. 17 because the money would not get doled out to federal agencies in time to make a difference.

“If we can’t get it done, we will have lost the timeliness of this bill,” said Stevens. “If you can’t work it out now, you’re not going to be able to work this out when you get back [from the recess].”

Passing a CR until October would mean putting the brakes on new money for homeland defense, an overhaul of election systems, and a raise for government employees at least until the fiscal 2004 appropriations are passed later this year.

Still, Stevens said his staff continued to work with House Appropriations Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.) on a conference committee product on the omnibus that both chambers could pass next week. In the meantime, both the House and Senate planned last night to pass a short-term CR that would expire Feb. 20. When Roll Call went to press, neither chamber had acted on the new CR. The current CR, under which the government is operating, expires Friday.

Stevens said he hoped that passing a CR that expires in the midst of a Congressional recess would light a fire under those lawmakers who were still holding out for last-minute funding deals.

“No one’s going to be here on the 20th,” Stevens noted. “So it says, ‘Get this bill done, or you’ll have to come back during the recess.’” [IMGCAP(1)]

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) also wants the negotiations to wrap up before the recess, but will likely defer to Stevens on what to do if they cannot come to an agreement, according to a senior GOP leadership aide.

“Nobody’s ready to pull the plug just yet, but there’s no doubt we have the patches on to monitor the heartbeat,” the GOP aide said of the omnibus.

Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) said Stevens was likely reacting to a situation in which the Bush administration has threatened to veto any compromise bill that breaks Bush’s self-imposed $390 billion spending cap. Abiding by the cap has made it much harder for appropriators to come to agreement on the omnibus, which encompasses 11 appropriations bills that are leftover from the 107th Congress.

Daschle suggested that Stevens and Young should stand up to the White House.

“It’s up to the Congress to stand on its own two feet,” he said. “I think it’s important for the Congress to recognize that we don’t work for the White House.”

Daschle added that Democrats would oppose a long-term CR rather than a new funding bill for the remainder of 2003.

“A continuing resolution cuts even more deeply than this [2003] budget,” said Daschle, who has complained about the 2.9 percent across-the-board funding cut in the omnibus.

In the meantime, Stevens said he was still waiting for NASA to request additional safety funds in the wake of Saturday’s disintegration of the Columbia space shuttle. Seven astronauts were killed in the incident.

If NASA asks for additional funding, Stevens vowed that it would be added to the bill, but he cautioned that deeper cuts in other domestic programs might be necessary to offset the NASA funding.

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