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Road Map: Passing Appropriations This Year Gets Trickier

What’s another missed deadline among friends?

[IMGCAP(1)]Congressional Democrats have already given themselves a little more time to fight it out on health care. So it probably won’t surprise anyone when they blow past the Oct. 1 cutoff date for funding the federal government, having sent only a handful of spending bills to the president’s desk.

Yes, it’s true. With the sluggish pace of appropriations in the Senate and Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) new vow to spend the bulk of September reforming the health care system, Congress is headed once again toward having to pass a stopgap spending bill — or a continuing resolution, which those “in the know— affectionately refer to as a “CR— — to keep the government operating until they can pass all 12 measures.

The question is whether come October the Senate will be able to focus long enough to pass the remaining bills, which could range in number from six to eight. Otherwise they will find themselves once again defending a dreaded and much-maligned omnibus appropriations bill.

Avoiding an omnibus is top priority for Democrats, who say they are determined — even if they don’t make this year’s statutory deadline — to pass all the spending bills individually. So far, the House is on track to pass all 12 measures before Members leave for the August recess. The Senate will likely have passed four, possibly five, appropriations measures before leaving on Aug. 7, aides said. None of the bills, so far, has been put through conference committee, however.

“We made it clear in the beginning of this Congress that we did not like what was becoming a habit of doing CRs and omnibuses,— said one senior Senate Democratic aide. But the aide noted that a handful of Republicans — i.e., Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.), John McCain (Ariz.) and Jim DeMint (S.C.) — have already demanded days of debate on traditionally noncontroversial and fast-moving appropriations measures, such as the one funding Congress.

The Senate plans on taking up two more “easy— spending bills this week — one funding Energy Department and water projects and one for the Agriculture Department — with action on the military construction and Veterans Affairs measure possible next week if those move quickly.

“The next two weeks will help show the Senate and the public at large what the Republicans’ plans are and what chance we have to finish all the bills— this year, said the senior Senate Democratic aide.

Republicans, however, say they are unlikely to give even the “easy— ones a pass, considering Democrats are on track to increase discretionary spending by $73 billion over last year. Former President George W. Bush attempted to keep nondefense funding flat or reduced in the latter years of his presidency, and Democrats caution that they are now including war costs in the regular appropriations bills and that this year they need to provide $10 billion for the once-a-decade Census.

Those caveats, however, are not going to dissuade die-hard fiscal conservatives.

“I think we’ll be insisting on quality time on the floor,— said one aide to a conservative Senator. “Every bill deserves quality time.—

This aide said Republicans would go after earmarks as well as items and programs that President Barack Obama has either criticized or targeted for termination.

Even though just a few Republicans tend to lead the charge, it’s not as if GOP leaders aren’t supportive of the effort.

“Republicans believe American taxpayers are owed a full review before obligating hundreds of millions of their hard-earned dollars,— said one Senate GOP leadership aide.

But even with a potentially long, drawn-out appropriations process looming before them, Democrats said they won’t repeat recent history this year.

Indeed, the past few years have been pretty bad by historical standards. In 2006, a GOP spending revolt prevented Congress from passing even an omnibus, and leaders opted instead to keep government spending largely flat with a series of long-term CRs.

When Democrats retook control of the House and Senate in 2007, Bush refused to negotiate spending bills with them, and the majority ended up relenting to his demands for spending cuts in an omnibus that was passed in December of that year.

Last year, Reid didn’t even bring any appropriations bills to the Senate floor, and the measure funding the entire federal government for the fiscal year that began last October was signed by Obama — not Bush — in February of this year.

The last time Congress passed all of its spending bills separately was 2005. But even then, they weren’t all completed until late December and most of the appropriating happened in November of that year, some two months after the statutory deadline.

With a little luck and aggressive scheduling of appropriations bills in October, Democrats could beat the 2005 model by a month or two. After all, the president is unlikely to veto spending increases he largely requested.

Of course, the delay on appropriations could give Obama more time to come up with a plan for what to do with the hundreds of suspected terrorists housed at the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, military prison. Democratic leaders have refused to provide the White House with funding to close the facility until the administration presents a plan for prisoner transfer. If Obama wants to follow through on his goal of shuttering the detention center by January, he’s going to have to come up with a plan before the Senate passes its Department of Defense spending bill.

Senate Democratic aides said they believe Obama will present them with that plan before the bill hits the floor, even though the president’s special task force reviewing detainee policy recently asked for another six months to come up with a plan.

Both chambers have already postponed action on their Defense spending bills as long as they can. The House finally marked up its version last week. The Senate plans to wait until after the August recess before taking it up in committee, an aide said.

The other unknown that has already affected the appropriations schedule is, of course, the health care debate, which threatens to eat up the entire month of September. And Democrats concerned about spending bills said they’re resigned to that.

“Once we get on [health care], we’re staying on it,— said one aide.

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