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Hope Springs Eternal For Approps Progress

If Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) have their way, this could be the first time in three long years that Congress avoids having to pass an omnibus spending bill to fund government operations.

And though it’s an even longer shot, they might even be on track to pass all 11 appropriations bills before their statutory deadline of Oct. 1 — that is, unless, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) decides to force a showdown on judicial nominations, which would in turn provoke Democrats to shut down most Senate action, possibly including appropriations.

Still, Lewis is trying to ramp up House passage of the 11 annual spending bills, a number that was reduced from 13 after a high-profile intra-chamber fight over subcommittee jurisdiction earlier this year.

“The chairman has put a schedule together that has all [appropriations] bills through the House by the July break,” said House Appropriations spokesman John Scofield. “It’s aggressive, ambitious, and it’ll probably take a year off our lives.”

The dreaded (and derided) omnibus has become almost a fact of life in Congress over the past few years, as intra-Republican rifts and fights between the two parties have largely prevented GOP leaders and appropriators from passing the bills on time since 1997. (A short-lived Senate Democratic majority also fell victim in 2002.) The last time all appropriations bills were enacted individually was during the bipartisan goodwill that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And even then, the bills were overdue.

This year, however, appropriators are aided by the fact that both chambers were able to adopt an annual budget resolution — only the second time in four years that one has materialized — as well as by strong new chairmen eager to put their unique mark on the appropriations process.

Indeed, last week, House Appropriations subcommittees passed out a $30.8 billion Homeland Security spending bill as well a $26.1 billion Interior, environment and related agencies measure. The full committee is expected to send those on to the full House today, with floor consideration by next week, Scofield said.

Meanwhile, subcommittee markups of an expected $85.2 billion “military quality of life” spending bill and a $29.7 billion Energy and water funding measure are looming on Thursday.

All told, Scofield said the House should pass at least four spending bills during May, with the remaining seven intended for passage in June, before Congress leaves for the Fourth of July recess.

The bold House schedule is made possible, Scofield said, by asking Members of the Appropriations panel to come back early from weekend breaks. For example, while the House rarely votes before 6 p.m. on Tuesdays, appropriators need to be in town before today’s 3 p.m. markup, which includes a formal approval of each subcommittee’s slice of the total $843 billion discretionary spending pie.

One potential snag in Lewis’ plan involves the generosity of the House GOP leadership. Lewis’ schedule “requires that the leadership doesn’t give any additional days away,” said Scofield.

Indeed, with Members from distant districts clamoring for more time at home, House leaders often decide to scrap plans to consider legislation on Mondays and Fridays. Lewis, however, has been trying to impart to the higher-ups that that kind of strategy could put him behind schedule this year.

For example, the Energy and water spending bill is already scheduled for floor consideration on May 27, Scofield said. But because that is the Friday before a planned one-week Memorial Day recess, House leaders may be pressured to give Members the day off.

However, if the House stays on schedule, “it should give the Senate plenty of time to have an orderly consideration of bills,” said Scofield.

Of course, Cochran has been in on the accelerated schedule all along. But because the House traditionally moves first on spending bills, he’s been holding off a bit on his panel’s markup schedule.

Cochran spokeswoman Jenny Manley said the chairman hopes to announce the allocations for his subcommittees — known as 302(b)s — later this week, as well as have markups for one or two bills by the end of the month. Manley said it was unclear whether Senate subcommittee chairmen would wait for House passage of a bill before taking it up.

Usually, the Senate is where appropriations bills have the most trouble, since floor debate there can take more than a week for just one bill. House floor consideration rarely lasts longer than a day, or even a few hours.

But Cochran, as the new Senate chairman, has been described by House and Senate aides as less confrontational and easier to work with than his predecessor, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

Whereas Stevens would request countless earmarks to benefit his home state and staunchly refuse to give them up during House-Senate conference committees, Cochran is “more measured” on the question of earmarks, noted one House GOP aide.

Regardless, Cochran still has a least one problem that Stevens had: convincing Frist to actually schedule floor time for the Senate’s spending bills. That can be a tall order given the pressure Frist can find himself under from other members of the Senate GOP Conference to take up broader policy measures.

Still, compared to last year’s appropriations track record, this session is getting off to a fast start. At this time last year, House and Senate budget writers were still wrangling over a budget blueprint. While the House passed a budget resolution conference report on May 19, 2004, Senate Republican leaders were never able to follow suit. They kept appropriators at bay until mid-June while they tried unsuccessfully to sell their budget to Senate GOP moderates.

As a result, seven of the appropriations bills (there were 13 at the time) never saw Senate floor action. Only four individual measures passed both chambers and were signed by the president, leaving appropriators to craft a mammoth $388 billion omnibus spending bill that wasn’t cleared until early December.

Last year’s omnibus even included a measure that never passed either the House or Senate: the $133.2 billion fiscal 2005 Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and independent agencies bill. Meanwhile, the Senate never even introduced a fiscal 2005 Energy and water spending bill, because of bipartisan discord over energy projects.

Cochran and Lewis have said repeatedly that they don’t want to be in a situation like that again. With a lot of luck, a deal on Senate judicial nominations, and the consistent backing of their leaders, they just might be able to do it.

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