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Appropriators Finally Get Their Chance

Reading local newspaper editorials from coast to coast, you might get the sense that Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., have averted a January government shutdown.

As is so often the case, that understates the next challenge: appropriating. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle decried the “meat ax” approach of the sequester, but it’s much easier to let bean counters at the Office of Management and Budget make across-the-board cuts than to actually do the work of surgeons with scalpels.

Assuming it reaches President Barack Obama’s desk, the budget deal sets a discretionary spending level of $1.012 trillion for the current fiscal year, with separate pots of money allocated for defense and nondefense functions. Both sides see relief from the sequester’s automatic spending cuts, which would have led to a $967 billion level when the next round of cuts would take effect. But it’s one thing to agree on how much to spend — it’s another to decide how to spend it.

Because Ryan and Murray largely split the difference between the House and Senate budget numbers, the appropriators will do likewise, actually going through the numbers to write the granular details of the omnibus. Appropriators who have been spinning their wheels all year have a tremendous incentive to deliver and keep the usual partisan fights over policy riders to a minimum. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy to line up different priorities across hundreds of government programs.

“We will be ready to go,” Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., said last week, before the House acted overwhelmingly to pass the budget deal, 332-94. “As soon as it passes one institution, we know that we’ll be able to tee up to get ready to do it.”

The Senate gaveled into session briefly on Sunday so that Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., could make the procedural moves to line up a key cloture vote to limit debate on the package Tuesday.

Mikulski met last week with House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., to discuss the way forward and allocation levels for each of the 12 appropriations subcommittees responsible for pieces of the catch-all omnibus bill, Rogers said.

The two spending chiefs weren’t the only ones meeting on Dec. 12. Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said at an afternoon news conference with fellow Democratic leaders that he had met earlier in the day with Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen. The New Jersey Republican took the gavel of the House’s Defense subcommittee following the death of Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla.

Durbin told reporters after the news conference that the objective is to get a completed omnibus spending bill through Congress by the time the current stopgap spending law expires in the middle of January, without the need for any additional continuing resolutions.

“We’re back the sixth [of January]. The House is back the seventh of January,” Durbin said. “We have one week to finish the deal and be able to make the Jan. 15 deadline.”

Even though much of the Capitol expects to have a longer holiday break than in recent years, accomplishing that goal will require long hours for appropriations staff on both sides of the Rotunda in the coming weeks. Durbin noted the scale of his bill alone.

“We’re talking about $600 billion, right south of that, in this bill for defense and intelligence, and our staffs have already started sitting down and working it out, and we’re going to do it with Thad Cochran and Pete Visclosky — it’s totally bipartisan,” Durbin said.

Cochran and Visclosky are the ranking members on the Senate and House Defense subpanels, respectively.

“There’s a lot to do, but they’re good, talented people,” Durbin said. “They want to get it done.”

Rogers echoed Durbin’s optimism, telling reporters that the appropriators will “find a way to make this work,” despite the truncated timeline.

“There will not be a shutdown, and I have confidence that we’ll be able to get an omnibus bill put together … that’s passable and will be passed,” Rogers said on Dec. 12. “We’ve got a number now that we can work with.”

The longtime House appropriator expanded on his comments during an interview for Sunday’s edition of C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program.

“What we will be doing is implementing the Ryan-Murray budget agreement that they voted for. We will do the implementation of that,” Rogers said. “So, I would hope that those who voted for the Ryan budget will also now vote for the implementation of the Ryan budget.”

The most likely alternative to the omnibus spending bill would be another continuing resolution, perhaps with levels adjusted upward to the $1.012 trillion level provided under the portion of the legislation that serves the function of a budget resolution.

Ideally, appropriators want to set the stage for a return to more normal lawmaking for fiscal 2015.

Reid, himself a veteran of the Appropriations Committee, said the agreement would establish budget levels for two years, something Mikulski and other appropriators had long sought.

“Instead of lurching forward from crisis to crisis, we’re now going to have a two-year appropriation cycle. We’ve been wanting to do this for many years and because of Sen. Murray’s leadership we’ve been able to do that,” Reid said last week.

Successfully moving regular spending bills through the floor would be a tall order in an election year, even if everyone agrees on the top-line numbers, since they would create opportunities for politically charged amendments.

But if all goes according to plan, next year just might mean appropriators get to do their work again.