Tuesday, September 2, 2003

The Senate yesterday began to play catch-up with the House in passing spending bills for 2004, pushing ahead to prove that a Republican-controlled Congress can buck the historical trend and finish its business on time.

Republican leaders set a goal of moving through the 13 appropriations bills before the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Though meeting that deadline seems unlikely, Congress is well ahead of last year’s pace, which eventually collapsed, forcing the government to be funded by numerous continuing resolutions well into 2003.

The Senate yesterday began debate on the $137 billion spending bill for the Labor, Education and the Health and Human Services departments, only the fifth appropriations bill to reach that chamber’s floor for debate. The House, in contrast, has only two spending bills left to usher through: one for the District of Columbia and the other for the Transportation and Treasury departments.

“One can anticipate that the month of September will be appropriations month,” said Nick Smith, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican. “We are hoping to make good headway and are hopeful that we’ll get through a couple of these.”

Congress’ desire to pass an omnibus energy bill, now in conference between the two chambers, will slow the appropriations process. Last month’s blackout, which affected most of the Northeast and parts of the Midwest and Canada, will increase the pressure to finish a bill that will reach the president’s desk.

Both houses are also under pressure to complete a major Medicare bill that would include prescription-drug coverage for seniors. Conservatives in the House, however, are beginning to waver in their support, citing concerns about the program costing much more than the $400 billion price tag.

The remaining spending bills will be debated after last week’s estimate by the Congressional Budget Office of a $480 billion federal deficit in 2004. That’s more than double the projected deficit of $200 billion issued by the CBO six months ago.

Democrats blame the tax cuts pushed by President Bush and the Republicans for the growing deficit. Republicans say that the Democrats’ concerns over the deficit are belied by their new spending plans.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, will hold a press conference today demanding a restoration of “critical education funding” in the Labor, HHS and Education spending bill.

The White House will also come to Congress later this month for a supplemental-spending bill to pay for the military operations in Iraq, already costing $1 billion a week. Such bills are usually prime candidates for piggy-back spending plans, but Republicans say they will try to enforce restraint.

“We do have to worry about that,” said a Republican staffer. “But we’ll do our best to keep the spending down.”

Earlier this year, the White House and Republican leaders agreed to a $785 billion cap on discretionary spending. The remainder of the $2.2 trillion 2004 budget is tied up in mandatory programs, such as Medicare and Social Security.

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