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Goal Line in Sight, Appropriations End Game Awaits

NOVEMBER 21, 2005 -- As the first session of the 109th Congress enters its final few weeks, appropriators are close to achieving their goal of passing all of the fiscal 2006 spending bills individually. But the last steps could prove the hardest.

President Bush on Nov. 19 signed into law the energy–water development bill (HR 2419), along with a second continuing appropriations resolution (H J Res 72) to keep funds flowing through Dec. 17 to agencies whose spending bills have not yet been enacted.

Only the Defense (HR 2863) and Labor-HHS-Education (HR 3010) bills remain to be completed when Congress returns from its Thanksgiving recess. The last time Congress passed all appropriations bills individually and didn't group any into a multibill omnibus was 2001. Before that it had not occurred since 1997.

Completing work on those measures will not be easy. The defense measure has been stalled for weeks by a fight over a Senate amendment by John McCain, R-Ariz., adopted 90–9, that would bar cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees in the war on terror and require interrogators to rely on an Army field manual that complies with standards set by the Geneva Conventions. The White House has threatened to veto the bill unless an exception from the abuse ban is made for CIA operatives.

The House last week rejected the conference report (H Rept 109-300) accompanying the Labor-HHS bill by 209–224, after 22 Republicans rebelled against the measure. Leaders attributed the defeat to a variety of issues. Some of the dissenters were upset about the lack of earmarks in the bill; others criticized cuts to rural health care programs and insufficient money for education. Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., voted "no" because of changes the bill would make to Medicare, which falls within his panel's jurisdiction.

House and Senate Appropriations Chairmen Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., and Thad Cochran, R-Miss., respectively, vowed at the beginning of the year to avoid another omnibus after nine spending bills last year were combined. The two—who were taking the reins of the spending panels for the first time—pledged a fresh start this year.

Some sort of year-end catchall bill may yet prove unavoidable, with the Defense bill the likely vehicle. It is widely seen as the last must-pass bill of the year, and GOP leaders may opt to use it to carry a variety of items—including President Bush's proposed reallocation of hurricane rebuilding funds and his spending rescission proposals, funding to prepare for a potential flu pandemic, and an across-the-board cut sought by GOP conservatives.

Labor-HHS also may have to hitch a ride on Defense if GOP leaders refuse to permit appropriators to renegotiate the failed conference report. They could add the bill, untouched, to the Defense bill and simply dare opponents to vote against the package. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has already predicted that the majority will choose that approach—and succeed.

However, it is still possible House-Senate negotiators could return to the table and report out a new conference report. In the hope of reopening the conference, the Senate on Friday voted 66–28 to instruct its conferees to designate the bill's $2.2 billion in Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) spending as emergency funding (to open up funding under the bill's spending cap for other activities), and it voted 58–36 to instruct conferees to seek another $797 million for the National Institutes of Health.

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