Monday, November 15, 2004

Congress will have to bridge an $8 billion difference between the House and Senate versions of an omnibus spending bill when lawmakers get back to the nation’s financial business this week.

“We’re working on how to get around that, and we might be looking at an across-the-board cut on everything except Defense and Homeland Security,” said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, Florida Republican and House Appropriations Committee chairman.

Defense and Homeland Security spending passed both chambers last summer, but nine other spending measures did not.

“So the administration likes our version better than theirs, but the Senate increased some things, in my opinion, that are legitimate, so we are not being hard-nosed about this,” Mr. Young said.

Mr. Young said the House expects to complete all remaining business on its schedule by week’s end, but the Senate likely will work an extra week.

Democrats said they are willing to cooperate on the omnibus bill and have been working closely with Republicans for the past two weeks.

“It looks like they’re getting closer than many think on getting all nine appropriations bills into an omnibus,” said Dave Helfert, Democratic spokesman for the House appropriations panel.

He said a few bills may be left out of the omnibus package to be considered individually because of expense or contentious provisions.

The issue over how much to raise the debt limit also is expected to stir heated debate.

The U.S. Treasury technically could become insolvent by Thursday unless the country borrows more money to maintain its current level of spending, but Congress is likely to increase the limit.

“We’ll play the usual game with the debt limit. [Republicans] would rather eat ground glass than vote straight up or down on the debt limit,” Mr. Helfert said.

The ranking Democratic members on three key House committees — Rep. Charles W. Stenholm of Texas (Agriculture); Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina (Budget); and Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York (Ways and Means) — sent a letter Wednesday to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, asking for stand-alone votes on the debt limit and pay-as-you-go budget rules.

“We are writing to request that the increase in the debt ceiling be considered as a stand-alone matter, not rolled into another legislative vehicle, and that it be given a full debate, followed by a clean up-or-down vote,” the Democrats said.

The current debt limit is $7.384 trillion, and House Democrats and some Republican budget hawks want President Bush to consider paring his tax cuts or prescribe budget cuts to alleviate the escalating public debt, said Democratic Budget Committee spokesman Charles Fant.

Democrats have been pushing for a return to pay-go rules — requiring any increases in mandatory or discretionary spending to be paid by revenue generators or cuts in other areas — enforced throughout the presidency of Bill Clinton, to which they attribute “record surpluses” at the end of his second term.

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