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House GOP Undecided on Approps Schedule

As House Republicans begin the delicate process of finishing the chamber’s three remaining appropriations bills, GOP leaders are debating whether to wrap up work for the year in October or to plan on returning after Election Day to pass an omnibus spending package.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said Tuesday that he retains the goal of adjourning his chamber for the year by Oct. 8. On the House side, top Republicans are hesitant to speculate on an adjournment date and are split on whether a lame-duck session to finish appropriations would be necessary or desirable.

Some House Republicans worry that if they try to complete an omnibus more quickly, the looming election will result in a sloppier, more expensive bill.

“The Senate wants to do this big, ugly thing now,” said a GOP lawmaker close to the leadership. “Every political pressure, every twinge that someone feels is going to be in that bill.”

Under that theory, a post-election session might reduce lawmakers’ appetite for pork and increase the chances of passing an omnibus that holds the line on spending.

But other Republicans argue that the tight limits set by the fiscal 2005 budget resolution make it less likely that the price tag on an omnibus will spin out of control.

“The omni is going to look pretty much the same before or after” the election, said John Feehery, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “The question is, can you get it done?”

For its part, the House has progressed much further in the appropriations process than the Senate has. The House has already passed 10 individual bills, compared to just one for the Senate.

The House plans to finish the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education spending bill today. The measure covering Transportation, Treasury and independent agencies should be on tap next week.

The last bill — Veterans Administration, Housing and Urban Development and independent agencies — could pose more problems than the first two. The measure has not yet been scheduled for consideration, and various critics have complained about nearly every facet of the bill.

The chief complainant has been Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who controls the floor schedule and believes the VA-HUD bill underfunds NASA. As of next year, DeLay’s redrawn Houston-area district will include the Johnson Space Center.

“Clearly that’s an issue,” said Rep. Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the VA-HUD subcommittee.

Walsh pointed out that every part of the bill had been subject to spending reductions and that it would be difficult to boost NASA funding without slashing some other priority. “There’s no easy answer,” he said.

Aside from the three remaining regular appropriations bills, the House may begin work as early as Friday on another emergency supplemental bill to assist hurricane victims.

President Bush has already signed one such measure, but the second is expected to be more comprehensive, including funding for items such as emergency highway repair and agricultural assistance.

Across the Capitol, the Senate is currently working on passing the Homeland Security measure, its second spending bill of the year. Frist said he expects to finish work on the bill before the Senate recesses next Wednesday for the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah.

Because the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday adopted spending caps for each of the 12 remaining spending bills, Frist said he finally has “the tools to go ahead and do the appropriations” on the floor.

Frist said subcommittees — most of which have yet to mark up their individual bills because of the lack of a budget and spending caps — would meet over the next week or 10 days to get their measures ready for floor action.

But Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) criticized Frist’s timeline, saying the Senate is “in a state of disarray with regard to appropriations.”

However, both Frist and Daschle pledged to work together to expedite passage of spending bills.

“I’ve pledged to Senator Frist that as long as they work with us, we will work with them,” said Daschle.

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.