While much of Capitol Hill is getting ready for the holiday break, those who work on the Appropriations committees have a different vision for the days ahead — and it ain't sugar plums.
The Senate is expected to pass the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 early this week, but the real work of funding the government is just getting started, as congressional appropriators and their staff plan to work through the holidays to avoid another government shutdown.
Appropriators are signaling that they will complete a 12-bill omnibus package for the remainder of fiscal 2014 by Jan. 15.
"We will meet that deadline," Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski said. "It's gonna be tough. It's gonna be stringent. But we will get that job done."
Appropriators are aiming high. Both Mikulski and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers have committed to drafting a dozen separate appropriations bills that will figure into omnibus legislation covering the remainder of the fiscal year. Appropriators are hopeful that they can pass the omnibus through both chambers before the current funding mechanism expires in January.
"I hope it's a bus that really moves," Mikulski, D-Md., joked on the Senate floor.
At worst, appropriations staffers say, they would push a very short-term continuing resolution — potentially as short as 36 hours — to give the committees more time to draft bills.
Conversations between members of the Appropriations committees have been ongoing but began in earnest last week after the House passed the Ryan-Murray budget agreement, which set top-line numbers for fiscal 2014.
But the agreement did not set spending figures for the individual subcommittees. Mikulski and Rogers, R-Ky., will have to agree to those numbers before their subcommittee chairs can get to work. Though the two chairs have met to discuss the appropriations process, they are unlikely to come to an agreement on spending levels before the Senate officially passes the budget bill, which is expected on Tuesday or Wednesday.
The appropriations for Defense and Homeland Security are expected to be completed with relative ease, with few disagreements between members of both parties on the overall spending for each.
In fact, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who chairs the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said that he began meeting with his House counterpart, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, on Thursday. "We think we know if the Murray-Ryan agreement goes through what our budget number is going to be," Durbin said. "We've already started working to get 60 percent of the discretionary spending taken care of in our appropriation bill. That's how quickly we can move once this agreement becomes the law."
The real difficulties will come as both chambers get to work on funding bills for Interior and Environment and for Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, where Democrats and Republicans are much further apart on spending levels. Negotiations over the Labor-Health appropriations haven't begun yet, a Senate Democratic aide said.
While the formal process of drafting bills cannot begin until the Senate passes the budget agreement, staffers have already begun identifying sticking points that will have to be ironed out before lawmakers return in January. The process is "not very far along" at the moment, according to one staffer, meaning that a lot of the heavy lifting will have to be done during the holiday recess.
With the House already out for the holidays, and the Senate planning to leave at the end of this week, most of the appropriations process will be carried out by staff. Staff members have been advised to stick around over the holidays, while lawmakers will primarily participate over the phone, as they prepare legislation for Congress to consider when both houses return in early January.
"It's doable. We've done it before.... It's not to say that it won't be very, very difficult," one House Republican staffer said of the Jan. 15 deadline.
The hope is that staffers will not have to work on Christmas Day itself, but both the House and Senate committees will likely be working up to Dec. 25 and through New Year's Day.
"Better in the holiday season than not at all," said one House Democratic staffer.
Though the House passed only five of the 12 bills — and the Senate passed none — in 2013, the Bipartisan Budget Act has appropriators cautiously optimistic about keeping the government open.
"We'll work with whatever the number is," said Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard Shelby of Alabama. "I've always said if we had a number, we ought to go by the number."
Lawmakers, especially Republicans, acknowledge that the appropriations process is paramount to avoiding another shutdown.
Call it crisis fatigue. Lawmakers, even those who have consistently voted to reject compromise legislation, are beginning to embrace the budget deal and signal support for regular appropriations bills, too.
"Funding the federal government through successive continuing resolutions is a bad idea that only results in greater inefficiencies, waste, and economic uncertainty," said Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican. "It is a practice that should end."
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