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Senate Will Not Follow House on Appropriations

Senate Republican appropriators today resoundingly rejected a revised House proposal to reduce from 13 to 10 the number of Appropriations subcommittees in the Senate.

Saying they wanted Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) to negotiate further changes with his House counterpart, Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), most Senators leaving a meeting of the panel’s Republicans this afternoon said they would definitely not go along with the House plan as it currently stands.

“At this point, we are not going to follow the House, and I don’t believe that we should,” said Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), who stands to see the panel he chairs — the subcommittee on Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development, and independent agencies — dismantled under the House proposal.

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), who chairs the Agriculture subcommittee, echoed that sentiment: “We’re pretty firm that we don’t like this last House offer.”

Accusing the House of trying to destroy the bipartisan nature of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said “one of the great defects of the system [presented by the House] is that it’s designed to make us more partisan.”

Stevens noted, “The House doesn’t have to work on a bipartisan basis.”

But Cochran held his views close to his vest, telling one reporter that no decisions “big or little” had been made in the hour-long meeting today.

Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee remains poised to implement its 10-subcommittee plan at a business meeting Tuesday, after negotiating for a week with the Senate and then presenting on Wednesday a take-it-or-leave-it proposal to eliminate the VA-HUD panel as well as subcommittees on the District of Columbia and the legislative branch. The VA-HUD panel’s broad jurisdiction would be spread out among the remaining subcommittees.

House Appropriations majority spokesman John Scofield declined to comment on the Senators’ reactions, saying, “I think we’ll keep our powder dry until we officially hear from the Senate.” Scofield noted that Lewis has said he is still willing to continue negotiations with the Senate, despite announcing Wednesday that he planned to move forward with the “bold reorganization.”

As of this posting, no meeting between Cochran and Lewis had been set.

Still, Senators said their overwhelming consensus was to keep 13 subcommittees in their chamber, though perhaps with some modifications that would make it easier to reconcile spending bills in conference committee.

“I believe the Senate is committed to 13 subcommittees,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). “What we want is for everybody to be whole.”

Indeed, Senators are reluctant to strip any of their 13 appropriations “cardinals” of power when, they say, the House has not made a case that reducing the number of panels would actually make the appropriations process smoother or more efficient.

Hutchison, as the current chairwoman of the subcommittee on military construction, stands to lose her ability to chair a subcommittee under the House plan, as does current District of Columbia subcommittee Chairman Mike DeWine (R-Ohio). The legislative branch subcommittee was chaired by retired Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) in the 108th Congress.

Still, faced with the House’s desire to move forward regardless of what their chamber does, Senators acknowledged they would likely have to reshuffle the jurisdictions of their 13 panels in order to make conference committees run more easily.

Hutchison said she presented a plan to Senators that would do just that. Eight subcommittees would be “virtually the same” as the House, she said, while the remaining five would likely have to pair up in conference committees.

But Bond has already rejected Hutchison’s plan. Calling it “Tom DeLay-lite,” in reference to the House Majority Leader from Texas who originally floated the Appropriations reorganization, Bond’s spokesman Rob Ostrander said Hutchison’s plan would “still put us in a situation where we have to have an omnibus.”

Hutchison would split the current VA-HUD and independent agencies panel into one that focuses solely on the Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development departments, and one that deals solely with NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The Environmental Protection Agency would become the purview of the Interior subcommittee, as in the House plan. And the Labor-Heath and Human Services-Education subcommittee would take jurisdiction over AmeriCorps, also mirroring the House.

Ostrander said Bond is still not convinced that the current jurisdiction of the VA-HUD panel should be abolished.

Stevens also said the latest House plan to split off about $36 billion of Defense Department accounts from the Defense subcommittee — which Stevens chairs — was unworkable. The House had originally planned to take about $90 billion worth of Defense accounts and put them into a revamped “military life” subcommittee along with Veterans Affairs funding. Stevens said taking away accounts, such as the basic military housing allowance funding, from the Defense subcommittee could jeopardize servicemen and women’s ability to get their housing expenses paid on time.

“I told [Cochran] it wouldn’t work for us,” Stevens said.

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