Key lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are resigned to the idea that few, if any, of the 12 FY09 appropriations bills will be separately enacted and fear they will be packaged into an omnibus measure as congressional leaders formulate a post-election strategy that looks toward a new president and Congress.
"I suppose most, if not all, appropriations issues will be settled with a" continuing resolution that would put off spending decisions until after the election, said House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member C.W. (Bill) Young, R-Fla., a former chairman of the full committee.
House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Harold Rogers, R-Ky., agreed with Young and attributed the situation to election-year politics.
"Given the politics of this year, I think [Democratic leaders] are probably going to want to wait to see who is in office" before moving forward with many appropriations bills.
Rep. James Moran, D-Va., a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said Democrats are doing the best they can with a president who opposes their agenda at every opportunity and a Senate with a slim majority.
"It is possible that we can get [the bills] through the House, but I think the Senate is problematic," Moran said. "It just makes us resolved to get 60 votes in the Senate because until we have 60 votes in the Senate and a new president, this Congress and this country is dysfunctional."
Moran said that the bills are ready to be marked up by the subcommittees, which could happen as soon as next week, according to a separate source.
However, a Democratic aide for the House Appropriations Committee said nothing has been scheduled and that the timing of marking up the bills is contingent on enacting an FY09 budget resolution and passing the war supplemental spending bill.
Moran's comments came after Senate Majority Leader Reid told CongressDaily he has met with House Appropriations Chairman David Obey about a strategy for appropriations, although neither Reid nor Obey would provide details.
One possible scenario anticipates Democratic leaders pushing a CR until after the election, then settling on one of the following strategies: sending President Bush individual bills; package all, or some, of them into an omnibus -- like last year -- and then send them to Bush; or pass another CR, which Bush would have to sign, then later send the individual FY09 bills to the next president.
For their part, Republican appropriators were steadfast in opposing an omnibus package or punting appropriations decisions to the next president.
The House should "pass all the bills by the fourth of July like we always have and then negotiate with the Senate," said House Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis who added that he thinks the process is falling apart.
Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Wayne Allard, R-Colo., called the unfolding situation "a catastrophe," adding, "We are not getting the work done like we should. I think we are going to end up with an omnibus bill at the end. I think it is likely that we will see the same thing happen as we did this last year and we may not even get anything done until after we have a new Congress and a new president."
Last year, Democrats had initially proposed spending about $23 billion more in discretionary spending than Bush recommended, prompting veto threats for any bills that busted his spending cap.
After negotiations never got off the ground, lawmakers scaled down some of their proposals and packaged all the bills, except the Defense appropriations bill, into a $555 billion omnibus package.
"We need to pass a budget, pass our appropriations singularly, that is when we have the best accountability," Allard said. "When we don't do that and we put everything in one big bill it opens the door for ... abuse and that is why I think we are heading for a catastrophe."
Bush has reiterated that he plans to similarly hold the line on domestic spending for FY09, which has likely reduced appropriators' appetite to send him any spending bills.
Even some House Democrats are upset about how the appropriations process has been handled, at least with respect to the war supplemental spending bill, which was drafted behind closed doors and did not go through the House Appropriations Committee.
"It is not the way I want to do business," said veteran appropriator Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio.
She added that the process used to draft the supplemental lacked transparency and that she hopes the committee can go back to doing its work after the supplemental is finished.
Kaptur also lamented that the use of omnibus legislative packages have become more common in recent years and that they are "destructive to representative democracy."
"I believe in the old saw: 'Absolute power corrupts absolutely,'" she said. "So let's make sausage out in the open."
As for the bills that have the best chance of being signed into law, most lawmakers expect the Defense appropriations bill to be the most likely to make it across the finish line individually, including Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and ranking member Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.
But Inouye's counterpart, House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Murtha, D-Pa., believes it will be difficult to get a bill out of his committee before the election because his staff has been working on the supplemental, which has taken top priority.
"The problem we have is that this [the supplemental] keeps pushing us back," Murtha said. "We have the same guys [staffers] that do the base bill that are doing the supplemental. We have pushed it back now where I doubt we will get to it before September. I think there is only a 50-50 chance that we will have a [Defense] bill because by the time you get to September you're in a presidential campaign for goodness sakes."
Other candidates that could be enacted include the Military Construction-VA spending bill and possibly the Homeland Security bill. Little else is given better odds.
"Maybe the Defense appropriations bill will go and get done," said Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., another appropriator, adding that the Military Construction-VA measure stands a decent chance of enactment. "And then we'll do one, maybe the Labor-HHS appropriations bill, or one of the other bills, that will get vetoed and then we will wait until next year."
This article appears in the June 7, 2008 edition of NJ Daily.