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House Willing to Fight on Spending

Determined that the inevitable still might be avoidable, the House isn’t yet bracing for a lame-duck session even though Senate leaders are offering a bleaker outlook.

“That decision has definitely not been made,” said a Democratic House leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) dangled the possibility Tuesday that lawmakers could punt the fiscal 2009 appropriations bills if President Bush doesn’t negotiate budget differences, House aides said their chamber isn’t necessarily going to avoid a tussle with the White House.

After Reid first raised the specter of an end-run around Bush last week — stating: “We are not going to be held hostage to the unreasonableness of this president” — the aide asserted that House lawmakers could welcome a spending battle and the chance to contrast their goals with Republicans.

“I think a lot of Members don’t like that idea,” the aide said, referring to the possibility of adopting a continuing resolution rather than attempting to finish appropriations bills.

But the aide conceded: “It doesn’t mean that’s not where we end up.”

Citing a tide of low approval ratings for Congress, one Republican source similarly deemed it unlikely Democrats would forecast a CR so early in the session. “I can’t imagine that’s going to improve the reputation of the institution,” the source said.

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) declined to comment on whether a post-election session would be necessary, but he put responsibility for such a meeting on his Republican colleagues in both the House and Senate, noting that the minority could significantly delay progress in either chamber.

“How they play it determines how much gets done,” Obey said. “We’ll see if they want to be cooperative or destructive.”

And several potential roadblocks do exist. House Republicans have demanded the chamber undertake additional reforms to the earmark process, while Bush has threatened to veto spending bills unless lawmakers’ pet projects are drastically reduced for a second year in a row.

“Getting the bipartisan stimulus package passed was a sign that Republicans and Democrats can work together,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “It was a break from Democrats’ go-it-alone style last year. We hope that we can continue to work together to get things done, starting with comprehensive earmark reform.”

“If Democrats are willing to work with us in a bipartisan way, there a number of things that we can do together over the next nine months,” Steel added. “There is no reason and no excuse for Democrats to force Congress to twiddle its collective thumbs until next Thanksgiving.”

In the meantime, one Democratic aide noted that the appropriations calendar is moving ahead — five Cabinet officials will testify on Capitol Hill this week: Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt and Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake — and House leaders expected a budget to be completed this spring.

“There are12 subcommittee chairmen who want to get their bills done,” said the aide, who asked not to be identified. “They are proceeding with the intention of getting the bills done.”

But if recent history is any guide, a lame-duck session may be unavoidable. Congress has met in such election-year sessions every cycle since 1998, as well as in 1994.

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