POLITICO: Appropriations Panels Quietly Work on Omnibus
Nov 18, 2012 -
Defying expectations, House and Senate appropriations committees are making steady progress in writing an omnibus spending bill for the coming year, hammering away like shipbuilders in the desert, hoping for a winter flood to carry them out to sea.
Defense clerks spent Friday reading out a final agreement of the Pentagon’s budget, estimated near $518 billion. The homeland security title could be finished early this week.
Agriculture, transportation, housing, justice and science are not far behind. And the push is on to work through the holiday and have most of the legislative text in place soon after Congress returns from Thanksgiving on Nov. 27.
It’s still a fool’s errand in the eyes of many. And for sure, there are outliers.
Talks on the giant labor, education and health chapter are lagging because the chief House Republican negotiator, Rep. Denny Rehberg, was preoccupied so long with his Senate campaign in Montana. But enough progress has been made overall that even a reluctant White House is beginning to take notice of the committees’ persistence.
Indeed, if the fiscal cliff debt talks end up requiring more cuts from discretionary spending, an updated omnibus would be a far better vehicle for implementing new savings than the six-month stopgap bill that is keeping the government funded.
A second factor is Hurricane Sandy. Few expect a huge supplemental this winter in the midst of debt talks, but given the devastation in the Northeast, many believe Congress has to act before New Year’s Eve to at least release the remaining $5.4 billion in disaster aid reserve funds.
This could be done by including language in the omnibus package. Or as some suggest, the disaster aid bill could become a vehicle to which the larger spending package is attached.
The appropriations leadership was never happy with the deal struck last summer by President Barack Obama, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), which put the whole government under a six-month continuing resolution pegged at $1.047 trillion in annual spending.
From the committees’ standpoint, it was a complete betrayal, tossing out months of work for political convenience before the elections. But rather than go off and sulk, the reaction has been to plunge back into writing a massive bill detailing how the $1.047 trillion might be better distributed — with more care than the CR allows.
No one seems discouraged that the same three men — Obama, Boehner and Reid — ultimately will decide whether the end product gets to the floor. Giving up is judged far worse.
“We’re riding herd on it,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said of the drafting process under way. “I don’t have an absolute deadline drop-dead date, but obviously, I’d like to get it done as soon as we can.”
“We’re making good progress, but we’re not there yet, and I don’t want to start selling something when I don’t have a product yet,” Rogers told POLITICO. “But I’m very anxious. No, I’m very interested in passing an omnibus bill to replace the CR.”
“The agencies are really having difficulty budgeting, and we’re wasting a lot of money in the process, particularly on defense,” he added. “My ambition is to get an omnibus passed. I recognize it is not an emergency like the fiscal cliff is, and that’s attracting all the attention. But if we can get a bill that is passable in both bodies, then we ought to do it.”
With all eyes on the White House talks, the little-noticed negotiations illustrate an important dynamic in this lame-duck session. If and when the legislative trains move on a debt deal, there will be no time to dawdle.
“We’re trying to get it done,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who must handle the often difficult negotiations over funding the Environmental Protection Agency and Western lands programs under the Interior Department. “We want to be in a position where if they give us time on the floor, we are ready to go.”
That lesson isn’t lost on farm bill negotiators. And Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, a former Agriculture Committee chairman and now the ranking Democrat, is pressing his colleagues to learn from the Appropriations example.
He is trying to educate his fellow Democrats on the need to restructure the food stamp program. And more than ever this year, Peterson is signaling openness to reducing taxpayers’ share of subsidies for crop insurance.
“They need to get this off their plate,” Peterson said of the pressure on Boehner and others in House GOP leadership. “The problem is there are no discussions going on.”
“If they get a deal, they are telling me, ‘You guys have to be ready because you are going to get about one hour to put this in,’” Peterson added. “We’re running out of time we need to be working this out. We should sit down, so we’re ready to go whatever happens.”