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GOP Anxious About Appropriations

The annual August recess may be 16 weeks away, but some Senate Republicans are already raising concerns about the fact that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has packed the spring and summer floor schedule without yet making room for the must-pass fiscal 2004 spending bills.

“This leader has the schedule for the next couple of months, but there aren’t any appropriations on it,” noted Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water.

Domenici added, however, “I’m sure if appropriations are ready, he’ll be happy to get them on the floor.”

Indeed, Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson said the Majority Leader has “taken appropriations into account” in looking ahead at the schedule.

“Appropriations, as they’re ready and brought forth, will be taken up in a timely manner,” he said.

Senate Republican aides cautioned that the floor schedule is still just a working draft and not set in stone.

“It’s a staff attempt to lasso a bunch of issues by saying, ‘If we wanted to go to those issues, where would they fit?’” said one senior Senate GOP aide. “Obviously appropriations is an area in which we know we must get it done. Some of these other things are things we hope to get done.”

Republican leaders on both sides of the Capitol are facing a tough test this year in fulfilling their goal of passing all 13 appropriations bills through their respective chambers by the end of July. That timetable, they say, would allow for House-Senate conferences on each bill to be finished by the beginning of the new federal fiscal year on Oct. 1.

But unlike the House, where mammoth spending bills can be dispensed with in one or two days, Senate consideration of just one controversial appropriations bill, such as the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill, can take up to two weeks.

In 2001, the Senate spent a total of 42 days debating all 13 spending measures, a worrisome example considering the Senate now has only 63 working days until the beginning of the August recess.

Anticipating problems caused by this year’s especially tight budget constraints, Senators and aides note that the appropriations process will eventually have to take precedence over Frist’s tentative schedule, and some high-priority policy measures will have to be pushed aside.

The question that lawmakers will have to confront when they return from their two-week spring recess, which starts this Friday, is what issues they’re willing to put on the chopping block. These decisions are made even more difficult by predictions that the 2004 presidential race will make it nearly impossible to pass any significant policy changes after September of this year.

“It makes it a balancing act between those issues that we want to bring up and highlight, and appropriations,” said one senior Republican aide.

The likely result will be a crush of last-minute requests by lawmakers to add their pet projects or legislative policy riders to the spending bills that are moving.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there [were] efforts to break the caps on appropriations,” Domenici said of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Domenici and other Appropriations subcommittee chairmen say they trust that full committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) will get the spending trains moving on time, regardless of Frist’s schedule.

“When he starts driving, he generally gets it done,” said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), an Appropriations member. “I think they’ll start showing up [on the floor] as soon as they’re ready.”

However, Craig noted the difficulty Frist will have in accomplishing his ambitious legislative goals this year. Craig predicted a drawn-out fight on creating a prescription drug benefit under Medicare as well as delays in bringing up a tax-cut package.

“Once you get beyond that, you have a pretty full summer [with appropriations],” he said.

Still, Republican aides confirmed that Frist would like the Senate to take up an Africa AIDS relief measure, a medical malpractice overhaul and a tax-cut package in a two-week period at the end of April and beginning of May.

Luckily for Republicans, Senate rules limit debate time on the tax cut, whose size will be determined by the fiscal 2004 budget resolution that may pass later this week, to 20 hours.

Republicans also hope for quick bipartisan action on the Africa AIDS measure, though passage is not a certainty. They are also bracing for a filibuster from Democrats on the medical malpractice legislation, which would limit damage awards in lawsuits against negligent or incompetent doctors. Senate Republicans also hope to dispense with a must-pass increase in the federal debt limit.

But all that has to be done by May 12 in order for Frist to make his target for consideration of an energy policy measure. He’s blocked off two weeks for debate before the Memorial Day recess, but Domenici, who also chairs the Energy and Natural Resources panel, said that it would take at least three weeks given the anticipated partisan wrangling over various ways to produce and conserve energy.

By June, Frist would like to begin considering prescription drugs, a debate his office estimates could take as long as three weeks.

That could leave the bulk of July for appropriations, Senate GOP aides said, even as they noted that Frist also has plans to squeeze in legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, a Defense Department authorization bill, a reauthorization of federal highway projects and an overhaul of the welfare system. Confirming judicial nominees, which Frist generally schedules for votes on Monday evenings, is also on the list of priorities.

Both House and Senate Republicans blame their tight schedule on Senate Democrats, who were unable to finish the fiscal 2003 appropriations bills during the 107th Congress.

“It’s a compressed timetable because we just finished last year’s [spending bills] six weeks ago. Then we went into the war supplemental, which takes us right into the ’04 bills,” said House Appropriations Committee spokesman Jon Scofield.

Senate GOP Policy Committee Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) said he fears Democrats will slow-walk this year’s appropriations as well.

“It’s not just that we don’t have a lot of time,” said Kyl. “But I fear that we’ll see the same tactics as we have for some time, where Democrats will try to stall.”

Kyl’s Democratic counterpart, Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.), said his party is likely to resist Republican efforts to push through substantial cuts in key domestic programs.

“I think we have our hands full this year. … We’re going to have to have a pretty good fight,” said Dorgan. “I think we’re going to have a lot of close votes on these issues, because a handful of swing votes in both parties make many of these outcomes unpredictable.”

House leaders also will have to work hard to avoid a repeat of last year’s impasse between the two chambers, as well as intraparty fights that prevented the House from passing a few of its own appropriations bills.

The fiscal 2003 Labor-HHS bill, for example, got caught up in a dispute between House conservatives and moderates over its size. Moderates complained it did not adequately fund social programs, while conservatives thought the measure was too bloated.

“We’ll pursue an ambitious agenda in the House to avoid what happened last year,” said Scofield, who noted the Labor-HHS bill may even move “sooner rather than later.”

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