Lawmakers Cite Progress On Budget Near Deadline
By CARL HULSE
WASHINGTON — With the next budget deadline just weeks away, top lawmakers said this week that they had made significant progress negotiating a huge government-wide spending bill that gives the once mighty congressional Appropriations Committees a chance to reassert control over the flow of federal dollars.
“We have a chance to prove to the rest of the Congress that we can produce bills,” Representative Harold Rogers, the Kentucky Republican who is the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in an interview.
The past few years have proved frustrating for members of the spending panels. With House Republicans unable to come to terms with Senate Democrats on a budget, the government has functioned mainly under a series of continuing resolutions that have taken the Appropriations Committees out of the game.
“It has been a real struggle and tough at times,” Mr. Rogers said.
While most members of Congress have scattered for the holidays, the panels’ bipartisan leadership and senior staff members have been assembling a $1 trillion measure that splits an extra $45 billion between military and domestic needs under the terms of the budget deal reached this month and signed into law by President Obama on Thursday.
Lawmakers involved in the talks say both Republicans and Democrats are determined to get legislation through Congress by the Jan. 15 deadline, even though many rank-and-file members are likely to be wary of an omnibus measure that takes in 12 sweeping spending bills intended to be considered separately.
The Jan. 15 deadline essentially leaves just more than a week to win passage, given that members of the House and the Senate will not start trickling back until Jan. 6.
Committee members say the bipartisan push behind the measure has produced results as they struggle to work out the myriad issues and financing disputes that can tangle appropriations bills and have contributed to the messy budget fights that have snarled the appropriations process.
“I am on the phone three, four, five times a day,” said Representative Nita M. Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the House panel. “We are really talking specifics. So far, we haven’t hit any bottlenecks.”
Those negotiating the legislation are holding details of the talks close, unwilling to let too much become public for fear of giving opponents time to build a case against the spending measure or incite lobbying campaigns by those who believe they are being overlooked.
“This is a time for the hard work and less public announcements,” said Ms. Lowey, who acknowledged that “serious challenges” remained, and that the committees faced an extraordinarily tight deadline for such a sweeping legislative job.
Budget watchdogs said they were not surprised that those drafting the legislation were divulging few details.
“They just want to spring it on us at the last minute,” said Steve Ellis, the vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “These are old-school appropriators. These are people who know how to write these bills.”
In an effort to improve the legislation’s prospects, Mr. Rogers said he and Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who is the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, had agreed to limit contentious policy “riders” that can tie up a spending bill. Riders often focus on politically charged issues such as abortion, environmental policy and antiterrorism tactics.
Holding riders to what Mr. Rogers called a “bare minimum” might prove difficult because many lawmakers will see the spending measure as one of the few major pieces of legislation likely to clear Congress in an election year and will want to take advantage of it.
There are some general priorities as lawmakers get a chance to reorder spending after many agencies have been running on autopilot under so-called continuing resolutions that essentially extend existing financing levels and programs.
Democrats such as Ms. Lowey and Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who oversees much of the government’s social spending, say they want to use the $22 billion in extra domestic dollars to expand health care research and preschool programs, among other initiatives.
At the same time, defense hawks see the legislation as a chance to undo damage they think was done to the military through automatic cuts required when Congress failed to reach a broader budget agreement in 2011. Failure to win passage would mean that the Pentagon would again operate under a continuing resolution.
Between lawmakers interested in steering more money to domestic initiatives and those focused on the Pentagon, the appropriations leaders hope to secure the votes to push through the legislation over the objections of conservatives who are unhappy with new spending and of liberals who believe that social programs are being shortchanged.
While the appropriations leaders are optimistic, potential stumbling blocks are numerous. Congress has struggled for years to pass legislation financing labor and health programs, and some Republicans will again balk at money for the new health care law. Battles will also most likely arise over spending for the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, military pensions and the Internal Revenue Service, which has been under fire from Republicans for singling out conservative groups for special scrutiny.
The budget fights reached a peak in October with the government shutdown. In its aftermath, Mr. Rogers pressed Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and other House Republican leaders — none of whom have ever served on the Appropriations Committee — to strike a deal that provided an overall spending figure the committees could work with.
“All I wanted from him was a number,” Mr. Rogers said, “and he delivered.”
The spending bill covers federal agencies through Sept. 30. But the budget deal also set spending for the 2015 fiscal year, providing the Appropriations Committees a chance to restore a semblance of order to a process that has gone badly off the rails.
Mr. Rogers said the committees hoped to return to the textbook approach of conducting oversight hearings on agency spending, assembling and passing bills in each chamber, and then holding House-Senate negotiations to resolve differences. Success could restore some of the luster to the Appropriations Committees. “It is simple,” he said. “Somebody has to propose how we spend the money, write it down on a piece of paper and say, ‘Here, what do you think?’ That is what appropriators do.”