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Senate Expected to Put Off Vote on Omnibus Until January

Despite the increasing likelihood that the Senate will not take up the omnibus spending bill until January, House leaders are pushing ahead with their plan to bring their chamber into session Monday to pass the final fiscal 2004 appropriation.

The omnibus — which allocates $820 billion, including mandatory spending — can’t become law until January if the Senate doesn’t put it on the floor next week, but House Republicans still believe it will be worthwhile to bring Members back to Washington. The GOP leadership wants to pass the measure now, while there is a bicameral agreement, in the hope that the House’s action may put pressure on the Senate to approve it more quickly.

Stuart Roy, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), said Monday’s agenda would consist only of the omnibus and any noncontroversial measures already passed by the Senate that could be approved by unanimous consent.

Meanwhile, with an increasing number of Senators who say they object to passing the omnibus by UC, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is increasingly likely to not bring the full chamber back into session next week.

“At this point he’s not interested in bringing people back,” said Amy Call, Frist’s spokeswoman.

Regardless of the final decision on a full session, Senate leaders do expect to hold at least a truncated session in the middle of the week with a couple of Senators on the floor in an attempt to wrap up, through unanimous consent, some of the noncontroversial issues unfinished year.

Senate GOP aides said the schedule was not finalized, but that Frist had come to realize Democrats and some Republicans had only hardened in their opposition to a voice vote on the massive spending measure. Before recessing for the Thanksgiving holiday, top Democrats had opposed a UC — Minority Whip Harry Reid (Nev.) proclaimed the omnibus “dead” — but Republicans left out hope that they could still get a unanimous consent agreement to pass the bill.

But Democrats continued to object. “We already know that there are going to be a number of objections to any unanimous consent requests to pass it — bipartisan objections, I might add, with Senator [John] McCain [R-Ariz.],” Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said in an interview Monday.

Since both chambers passed continuing resolutions to keep the government running through Jan. 31, there is no immediate reason to pass the omnibus measure and it can be taken up again when the Senate reconvenes (slated for Jan. 20).

GOP aides insisted this week that it’s still likely that the omnibus will pass, noting that it’s a reasonable political rationale to require a full vote on such a large bill but that it would be politically more challenging to block a measure with so many initiatives key to Senators on both sides of the aisle.

It’s likely that the omnibus will be the first measure brought up in January. “We don’t feel like the bill is in danger,” said one Senate GOP aide.

Democrats have been upset with several policy riders on the bill, including a revision of media ownership rules promoted by Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Also, they object to labor rules in the bill. Whether those objections are enough to prompt an outright blockade is still unclear, and Daschle did not stake out a clear position on that, either, suggesting that a few votes would have to be taken to measure support for the omnibus.

“They knew going in that if they were to load up this omnibus with a lot of egregious policy additions, it was going to create a real problem and they did it anyway,” Daschle said. “So we’ve got to have some faith and we’ll have to have some votes.”

As for the rest of the Senate agenda, Republicans hope to clear many of the 97 executive and judicial branch nominations that have been approved by committee and are awaiting floor action. None of the controversial circuit court nominees that have been filibustered by Democrats would move at this time, but Republicans hope they could pass the noncontroversial nominees, such as the No. 2 positions in the Justice and Labor departments.

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