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Approps Chairmen Vow to Finish by Thanksgiving

House and Senate leaders are split over when to adjourn for the year, with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) vowing to close up shop by Thanksgiving and House Republican leaders appearing to signal that a December adjournment is more realistic.

Despite their differences, aides in both chambers say the traditional barrier to adjournment, the need to pass appropriations bills, is unlikely to be the primary sticking point this year. [IMGCAP(1)]

“It’s highly unlikely that we’re going to get out of here on [Nov.] 18,” said one House GOP leadership aide, citing the need to wrap up work on a highly contentious budget reconciliation measure as well as appropriations.

That contrasts with Frist, who told reporters last week, “I am going to close this place down at Thanksgiving.”

Frist spokeswoman Amy Call reconfirmed that sentiment Monday, acknowledging that the Senate may need to work the three days before Thanksgiving — Nov. 21, 22 and 23 — but that “we’ll finish.”

The House, she said, “can be in after Thanksgiving, but we’ll finish appropriations, and we’ll finish [the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet] Miers, before we leave for Thanksgiving.” Call added that the Senate also plans to finish the budget reconciliation bill before adjourning at that time.

But the budget reconciliation debate, which pits Republican conservatives against the House Republican leadership and, at the same time, the House against the Senate, has been divisive, and the House GOP leadership aide said it’s naive of Frist to assume the two chambers will be able to complete action by Thanksgiving.

“We should be less concerned about when we get out of here and more concerned about what we accomplish,” the House aide said.

Of course, any delay on reconciliation could have a ripple effect. If it becomes apparent that reconciliation will not be done by Thanksgiving, appropriators may slow down their work as a result, the aide acknowledged.

But with House conservatives on the prowl for deeper spending cuts, appropriators may have an extra impetus to finish their bills sooner rather than later.

With seven appropriations bills still in conference, conservatives have floated the notion of slashing spending in those bills, and perhaps passing a rescissions bill for the three spending measures that already have been enacted. The Senate is expected to send its Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill to conference with the House by the end of the week.

And the more appropriations bills that win passage, the harder it will be for conservatives to pass any rescissions package.

Besides, further cutting discretionary spending in appropriations bills is a notion that Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) has firmly rejected.

“The time to do that is when the bills are before each body, not after the fact,” said Cochran, who noted his push to complete all 11 appropriations bills by Thanksgiving would not get “sidetracked by a debate” over additional spending cuts.

Whether it’s to avoid having to pass another continuing resolution to keep the government afloat or to dodge conservatives’ spending cuts, both Cochran and House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) are pushing their subcommittees hard to finish work by Nov. 18, the expiration date of the current CR that has been funding the government past the Oct. 1 start of the government’s new fiscal year.

Lewis spokesman John Scofield said House appropriators are currently “trying to get a timeline in place” that would send the remaining eight appropriations bills to the president by Nov. 18.

“In the absence of that, you’ll have people dug in with no end in sight,” said Scofield, who added that Lewis believes it is “realistic” to finish conferences on all eight remaining bills by Nov. 18.

But Cochran sees a slightly larger window in which appropriators will work, indicating that Frist has not said that Nov. 18 is a hard-and-fast deadline, but rather has indicated that Thanksgiving, Nov. 24, is the cut-off date.

Cochran acknowledged that appropriators might have to pass another stopgap spending bill to keep the federal government running in the absence of new appropriations bills.

“If we have to have another CR for three or four days, that’s not a big deal to me,” Cochran said. However, he warned that a CR that lasts into December would be a problem for him.

“We don’t want to have to go over past Thanksgiving,” he said.

Even with the tight schedule, Cochran and Scofield said an omnibus spending bill is not in their future.

“We’re going to get our work done on time and in a way that fulfills our promise to have individual bills within budget restraints,” Cochran said.

A senior Frist aide echoed that sentiment. “Right now, we are not excited about an omnibus, given that there is plenty of time left for conferees to solve various money questions that bedevil the two chambers and the White House,” the aide said.

Of the eight remaining bills, Cochran said there don’t appear to be any policy fights serious enough to delay an agreement.

Indeed, the Agriculture appropriations bill is likely to be cleared by both chambers this week, he noted.

Scofield said the bill that funds the Commerce and Justice departments could be the next measure to break free from conference, followed by either the State Department and Foreign Operations bill or the Energy and water spending bill.

Jurisdictional problems between House and Senate subcommittees also were solved relatively easily, Scofield noted.

While the Senate included veterans’ health care issues in its Defense Department appropriations bill and the House did not, the chambers simply agreed to accept the Senate’s structure of the bill to resolve the discrepancy.

Similarly, the House included the State Department in the spending bill with the departments of Justice and Commerce, while the Senate opted to place State in its foreign operations spending measure. The chambers agreed to use the jurisdictional framework used by the House on both of those measures.