Appropriations Chairs Take the Reins as Omnibus Spending Bill Hits Final Stretch

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 26: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (R) walks with Rep. Harold Rogers (R-KY) (L) to a press conference with House Republicans on proposed greenhouse gas standards issued by the Environmental Protection Agency September 26, 2013 in Washington, DC. The EPA standards for new power plants could significantly impact states that produce and use coal as a source of energy. (National Journal)

Signs of progress toward funding the government's $1 trillion operations showed up across Capitol Hill on Monday, as members returned to put the finishing touches on a 12-part omnibus bill that will fund the government through October.

Though little evidence of work being done has emerged in the public domain — aside from the cigar smoke creeping out from behind the door of House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers's office — members and aides from both chambers say progress is being made and that they anticipate the appropriations bill will pass Congress before the current funding mechanism expires on Jan. 15.

After nearly a month of negotiations conducted largely by staff members, the Appropriations subcommittee chairs in both chambers have made progress on their separate bills and have sent the bulk of their work and a few remaining disagreements up the chain to the chairs of their respective committees.

"I'm glad to say that it's going well. I don't think it's finished yet — you'd have to ask Chairwoman [Barbara] Mikulski about exactly where the details are — but I know we've been working hard to get it done," Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, and the Food and Drug Administration, said Monday.

Rogers and Mikulski were scheduled to meet Monday, according to a House aide, to work out the remaining hang-ups and prepare final legislation. Rogers had to reschedule that meeting, according to Mikulski's office, but the two have been discussing the omnibus and will continue to meet to work out the final bills. Details are being discussed between the two committee chairs, according to lawmakers.

"It always happens that way," said Senate Appropriations Committee member Jack Reed, D-R.I., who chairs the Interior Subcommittee. "You do as much as you can and then there are certain issues that have to rise to the two leaders. I think the staffs have done a remarkable job — good cooperation, very thoughtful, serious debate, principled debate. That's been a very good sign."

Mikulski and Rogers plan to meet early this week with the ranking members of their committees, a sign that progress is being made. A final omnibus bill is expected to be unveiled in the middle of the week with a vote likely in the House as soon as Wednesday or Thursday, according to a senior Democratic Senate aide. The Senate would then take the bill up next week before leaving for the Martin Luther King Jr. recess.

"I think the staff has done a remarkably good job on both sides — the House and Senate," Reed said. "I hope we can reach a principled agreement."

The issues left before the Appropriations chairs are a closely guarded secret, and both members and staffers for the committees declined to comment on what specific disagreements remain. One House Democratic aide involved in the discussions would say only that there are "open and unresolved issues" and that none of the 12 bills that will make up the final omnibus are yet completed.

Funding levels for financial agencies and for the Interior and Health and Human Services departments, in particular, are common sources of disagreement in appropriations battles and are likely to be among the final decisions agreed to by the committee.

Without much time before the current continuing resolution expires, lawmakers and staff have marked up the omnibus mostly behind the scenes, with no public markups expected. That means that while the budget deal that passed late last year set the $1.012 trillion spending level for the remainder of fiscal 2014, appropriators are fine-tuning the spending levels at the subcommittee level.

There will almost certainly be agreement, say members and staffers on both sides of the discussions. Optimism is high among appropriators that they will meet the Jan. 15 deadline to fund the various departments of government without resorting to a continuing resolution. At worst, they say, Congress could pass a one- or two-day CR to fund the government at current levels and give appropriations staffers a few more hours to come to an accord.

Even given the disagreements over funding levels for some controversial departments, the House Democratic aide said that the committee members are committed to passing a 12-part omnibus. If appropriators fail to come to an agreement on any one aspect of the omnibus, they could pass a CR, maintaining the current funding for that program. But members are not currently considering that option, the aide said, confident that they will get a deal across-the-board. "We're still working hard and optimistic," the aide said.

To get there, Rogers and Mikulski have indicated to committee members that they will avoid the kinds of high-profile policy disagreements that have derailed past appropriations bills, according to another Senate Democratic aide. That means this omnibus bill will likely focus on small areas of agreement, leaving major policy battles for another day — much like the budget deal that gave birth to it.

Senate Republicans aren't likely to block the potential omnibus, said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, but he cautioned that members haven't seen the legislation yet. Having felt the sting in the polls after last October's government shutdown, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said Republicans won't again shutter the government on Jan. 15.