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After the Supplemental, 12 Regular Appropriations Bills Await

Forget about the ongoing, hostile partisanship over the $124 billion supplemental Iraq War spending bill. That’s so last week. [IMGCAP(1)]

Congress is going to have almost $1 trillion in domestic funds to fight over in the coming months, and Republicans in particular are predicting a rocky appropriations season this summer.

“The Democrats are going to try to politicize just about everything. Look what they’ve done with the supplemental,” Senate Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) said last week when asked about the regular appropriations process. “I don’t expect it to get any better. If anything, I expect it’ll get worse.”

And Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said he is already “getting organized to take them on.”

Indeed, the battle is right around the corner as the House Appropriations panel gets ready to begin marking up bills as early as next week, with the Senate Appropriations Committee planning to start next month.

The goal in the House is to have all 12 annual spending bills passed by the July Fourth recess, in order to give the Senate enough time to take them on. By law, appropriations bills need to be enacted by Oct. 1 — the start of the government’s fiscal year — but Congress has often bypassed that date in recent years because of the difficulty of passing appropriations.

John Bray, spokesman for Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), pointed out the last time the House and Senate passed their bills on time was in 1994, when Byrd and House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) were last at the helm of their respective committees. Of course, back then, they had a newly installed Democratic president in Bill Clinton to deal with. This time around, President Bush is rumored to be itching to veto a few Democratic-sponsored spending bills.

Bush is set to warm up that veto pen on the supplemental war spending bill as early as today, setting up a possible override vote in the House this week. Because House Democratic leaders appear far short of the two-thirds vote needed to reverse the veto, the Senate is unlikely to get a chance to fall short as well.

As for the appropriations bills to come, Democratic leaders in the House already are planning for a scenario in which they will begin to move appropriations bills as soon as the week of May 14 without the framework of a bicameral compromise budget. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said last week that the House might have to “deem” a top-line spending cap rather than wait for passage of a budget conference report, which so far has been elusive to the majority.

Democrats would have to reach an agreement on a budget resolution next week in order to avert that scenario.

With Congressional Democrats trying to demonstrate that they can govern — i.e., fulfill their constitutional duty involving the nation’s purse strings — Republicans are bracing for what they believe is the majority’s uncontrollable desire to overspend American tax dollars, and as Lott noted, are planning accordingly.

“Democrats talked a big game about fiscal restraint during the campaign, but they’ve worked tirelessly ever since to fight earmark reform legislation and to find new and creative ways of evading their own beloved [budget] rules,” one Senate GOP leadership aide said of the majority’s recent objections to adopting earmark rules without also overhauling lobbying practices.

The Senate GOP leadership aide said Republicans expect Democrats to use appropriations bills as ways to force the GOP to take politically sensitive votes. Likely suspects include “a lot of political amendments on setting up choices between children and puppies versus fiscal responsibility,” the aide quipped.

Additionally, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said he could envision Democrats bringing up issues related to the Iraq War on nearly every appropriations bill, not just the one funding the Defense Department.

“Given that everything has been focused on the war to date, it would be my hope that that wouldn’t run the [regular appropriations] process,” he said.

Democrats disputed the notion that the fiscal 2008 appropriations process would be fraught with partisan intrigue.

“Most of the appropriations work this year will be done in cooperation with Republicans,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), an appropriator and chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.

Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Friday that he was “fairly optimistic” about the process this year.

“Historically, they have been relatively nonpartisan. I hope that’s the way they’ll be this year,” said McConnell.

But some Republicans took issue with Democrats’ promises of across-the-aisle camaraderie.

“It depends on what your definition of bipartisan is,” noted one senior Senate GOP aide. “I think they think that as long as they keep us in the loop on what decisions they’re making that they’re including us.”

The aide added that already some Senate Appropriations subcommittee chairmen have been reluctant to share information with their Republican counterparts.

In the meantime, Dorgan took a shot at Republicans for only sending the Defense and Homeland Security spending bills to the president before adjourning last year.

“We will not cause the mess they caused last year by refusing to bring 10 bills to the Senate floor,” said Dorgan.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has sharply criticized his predecessor, former Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), for his failure to make time on the Senate floor for appropriations bills in the previous Congress.

So Reid will be under pressure to carve out weeks and weeks of the Senate’s summer schedule to take up the bills. Some of them may be relatively noncontroversial, as the military construction bill has been in recent years, but others, such as the Labor-Health and Human Services-Education measure, could take weeks of floor debate in the Senate and/or languish in conference committee with the House.

Democrats “have set the bar very high after attacking us on the appropriations process,” said the Senate GOP leadership aide. “Success for them is going to be defined by them finishing all of them in regular order.”

So far, both the Senate and House Appropriations panels say they are still in the process of setting the schedule for moving bills through committee and on the floor of each chamber. Still, there are a few clues as to how the process will work.

Given the House Democrats’ goal of having all 12 bills passed by July Fourth, it appears that the Defense appropriations bill will be the last train out of the station. House Appropriations subcommittee on Defense Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.) said last week that the full committee likely would mark up the bill the week of June 21, in time for it to be on the floor the week of June 28.

Murtha ascribed the relatively late date to the need for staff to work on the supplemental following Bush’s veto. Still, Republicans are likely to accuse them of holding up military funding in a time of war.

“Generally, we do [appropriations for] Homeland Security and Defense first,” warned the Senate GOP leadership aide.

However, as early as next week, according to one source, the House Appropriations subcommittee on military construction and Veterans Administration may mark up its bill.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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