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Appropriations Chairmen Promise ‘Busy Summer’

With $843 billion burning a hole in their pockets, House and Senate appropriators continue to move as swiftly as possible to pass the 11 annual spending bills by their Oct. 1 statutory deadline.

But while the House is still on track to pass all 11 bills before the July Fourth recess, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has yet to bring up any of the three spending bills that are ready for floor action — Energy and water, Homeland Security, and Interior. Though, to be fair, the first two were only passed out of the Appropriations Committee last week.[IMGCAP(1)]

That said, everything could change if the Senate wraps up debate on an energy bill this week. Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson said the current plan is to bring up the Interior and Homeland Security spending bills next week, before Congress adjourns for the weeklong holiday recess.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) sounded optimistic about his chances for completing most of the action on his bills by the August recess and sending all 11 to the president by Oct. 1.

But he acknowledged that Frist has yet to design a full appropriations schedule for the Senate floor.

“We don’t have a commitment for a full schedule yet,” Cochran said in an interview Monday. “I think we’re moving along as we had hoped we would.”

Cochran added that he is confident Frist will give him the necessary floor time to move a number of bills during July.

“The leader knows what our priorities are,” Cochran said.

Still, Stevenson warned that unknown factors could push back consideration of appropriations bills this summer.

“We’ll have time for appropriations, but a lot depends on whether we get the energy bill done and whether we have a Supreme Court nominee,” he said. (Chief Justice William Rehnquist is expected by many to announce his retirement this month.)

Stevenson added that any conference report on the six-year highway spending bill would likely take precedence over all other matters.

However, Cochran predicted that the need to make sure the government continues to be funded would make it easier for appropriations bills to punch through any partisan standoff, including one over a Supreme Court nominee.

“I think we can always call a time out, whether we’re debating a nominee or whatever, to go to an appropriations bill,” he said.

Meanwhile, Cochran is plugging away at reporting his bills from the full committee, which this week will feature markups on the Agriculture and Commerce-Justice-Science bills. Consideration of the legislative branch spending bill will likely be pushed back a few days, he said, “because of unforeseen complexities.”

Next week, the Senate panel plans to complete work on the State Department and foreign operations measure. Markups for the Transportation, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, Judiciary and the District of Columbia appropriations bills are expected on July 14, while on July 21, Cochran said the panel would likely take up the Defense, military construction and Veterans Affairs measures.

“It’ll be a busy summer,” he said.

While the House has largely been able to pass six appropriations bills with little trouble, this week could prove the exception.

As it happens every year, the House’s expected debate Thursday over the $142.5 billion Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and related agencies spending bill will feature some of the most bitterly partisan skirmishes of the appropriations cycle, given that programs near and dear to Democrats in particular are on the chopping block.

“This is where the priorities differ. They want to spend more on social programs than we do,” said House Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield. He said that ineffective programs were eliminated while funding for successful programs were in some instances increased. “This is a classic struggle between the parties.”

The bill would eliminate 57 government programs, including 19 in the Health Research and Services Administration and at least 21 education programs ranging from $41 million in scholarships named after Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) to a $5 million dropout prevention program. The largest cut comes from eliminating President Bush’s $1.24 billion high school intervention program.

Still, House Democrats are expected to put up stiff resistance to the cuts, which include a $100 million reduction for the embattled Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kirsten Brost, spokeswoman for House Appropriations ranking member David Obey (D-Wis.), said Democrats have a lot to dislike about the current Labor-HHS bill.“There’s a lot of outrage on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting [cuts], but the problem is that it has to share space with outrage on [cuts to] so many other good programs,” said Brost.

Topping the House Democrats’ list, however, is what they say is an $806 million shortfall in funding Bush’s signature education initiative, No Child Left Behind. But Scofield defended the funding level for NCLB, saying, “We’ve well-funded that program.”

As for cuts to public broadcasting, Democrats have lashed out at what they say are not only Republican attempts to cut funding for the CPB but also recent GOP criticism of allegedly “liberal” programming on local Public Broadcasting Service stations.

But Scofield denied that political considerations had anything to do with the cuts to public broadcasting.

“In a flat budget with a big deficit, there are other priorities,” Scofield said. “This was not for ideological reasons. The biggest priority for us in the [Labor-HHS] bill were Pell Grants.”

Indeed, the House measure increases funding for Pell Grants by more than $1 billion and allows eligible college students to receive as much as $4,100, the highest level in history.

Still, many of the House’s proposed cuts are unlikely to survive a House-Senate conference, given that Byrd — whose name is on some of those eliminated scholarships — serves as Senate Appropriations ranking member.

Additionally, the House has zeroed out funding for at least two programs championed by former Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who still chairs the powerful Appropriations subcommittee on Defense.

The House bill would eliminate $47 million in funding for the Denali Commission, which was designed to provide infrastructure and economic support to rural Alaskan communities, as well as get rid of $9 million in scholarship funds to native Alaskans.

A $298 million cut from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program’s emergency fund could provide another potential flashpoint for Members of both parties in the House and Senate, considering the program’s reach in the Northeast.

The House is also expected to pass the Defense and legislative branch spending bills this week. Next week, the House is scheduled to take up the two remaining spending bills: foreign operations and Transportation, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, Judiciary and the District of Columbia.

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