GOP leaders acknowledged Tuesday that the Senate’s sluggish pace on the fiscal 2004 appropriations bills is likely to force both the House and Senate to stay in session well past their Oct. 4 target for adjournment.
Though Republicans had hoped that their control of both chambers would make it easier to resolve the 13 annual spending bills this year, Senate GOP leaders are now saying it will be nearly impossible to complete the appropriations process before the Sept. 30 statutory deadline. As a result, Congress will likely stay in session throughout October and possibly into early November.
“I think our Members should expect to be around this fall,” said Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who noted that spending bills would not be the only hold-ups to an early October adjournment. “Wholly aside from appropriations, there are other issues we need to do — class action, asbestos, tobacco.”
One senior Senate GOP aide also indicated that Republicans are already prepared for the likelihood that they will have to pass one or more stop-gap spending measures, known as “continuing resolutions,” to prevent a complete government shutdown once the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said he had not been given enough time in July to push through the appropriations.
In the first three weeks of July, the Senate was able to complete action on only four appropriations measures, while the House completed 11 and expects to finish the other two in the first week of September.
“Because of the energy bill, we are not able to get the number of [spending] bills we could have gotten before the recess,” said Stevens.
Stevens noted that Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) decision to spend the last week before the August recess on the energy bill, rather than on appropriations, will force the Senate to attempt to pass the remaining nine spending bills in September.
“We’ve only got three weeks and two days to do it in,” Stevens said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see we won’t get through them all.”
Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), who sits on the Appropriations panel, agreed with his chairman’s assessment.
Craig said the House and Senate would have to pass at least one CR once the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1, to keep the government from shutting down.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t have to push like mad to get those appropriations bills out as quickly as possible,” Craig said.
One senior GOP leadership aide said passing the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill would be the key to finishing the maximum number of appropriations bills in September.
“If we can get Labor done in the first week back or within five days, then it’s possible to get 11 to 12 [bills] done before the beginning of the fiscal year,” said the aide. “But throw in reality, delays, [days off] and other things going on, and maybe seven or eight get done before Sept. 30.”
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on Labor-HHS, said he advocated at a GOP leadership meeting on Monday that Frist force the Labor-HHS bill to completion that first week of September, staying in on Saturday if needed.
“If we’re going to finish appropriations bills before September 30, we need to push,” said Specter.
Still, Stevens noted that it was not just the Senate pace that would prevent spending bills from making it to the president’s desk by Sept. 30.
House and Senate appropriators also have widely divergent bills, a scenario reminiscent of last year, when House and Senate appropriators strongly disagreed on spending totals for a variety of programs.
This year, Stevens said he expects battles over two bills — Defense and military construction — that traditionally have been the easiest for the two chambers to reconcile. The struggle will be over the $100 million the Senate transferred from its Defense spending measure to the military construction bill.
“You don’t go to conference if each side doesn’t have the same amount of money [in their bills],” said Stevens. “It’s going to be hard to conference either Defense or military construction.”