AGRICULTURE BUDGET BILL MAY CARRY OMNIBUS
The fiscal 2004 Agriculture spending bill has emerged as the leading candidate to carry the end-of-session omnibus appropriations measure, GOP aides said Thursday.
While no final decision has been made, House appropriators are pushing to use the Agriculture bill as the vehicle since that would enable House Appropriations Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, to chair the conference committee on the omnibus, which they hope to convene next week in advance of the Nov. 21 target adjournment date. Senate aides said no objections had been voiced so far. The omnibus is likely to contain the fiscal 2004 Commerce-Justice-State, VA-HUD, District of Columbia and Labor-HHS spending bills as well as the Agriculture measure. Young and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, were expected to meet later today to discuss the appropriations end game.
Aides said Stevens has asked Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., for one last chance to approve the VA-HUD, Commerce-Justice-State and District of Columbia bills individually. But Frist is prepared to allow only the VA-HUD measure, which was set aside Wednesday evening, to finish. The Senate could turn back to that bill after the 30-hour judges debate ends late Thursday or early Friday, a Frist aide said. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that Democrats would like to take up fiscal 2004 appropriations bills individually instead of wrapping them together in a single package. "Members of Congress should have great unease about this prospect of dumping too many issues into one omnibus bill," Pelosi said. "Democrats want to take up each of these appropriations bills, and certainly there was time to do so."
If the Agriculture spending bill is chosen as the vehicle, it would mark the first time in 18 fiscal years that one of the regular spending bills is used for an omnibus, although the fiscal 2001 VA-HUD spending bill also contained the Energy and Water appropriations bill. The other 10 omnibus bills were either continuing resolutions or consolidated spending bills, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.
Appropriators had held out hope the massive Labor-HHS spending bill could be completed separately. The key hangup is a Senate amendment blocking proposed Labor Department changes to overtime compensation rules over which the White House issued a veto threat and shown no signs of relenting. The deadlock has led Republican leaders to consider rolling it into the omnibus, where the Senate provision would be removed.
Sensing such a move, the AFL-CIO sent an e-mail alert to members Wednesday titled "Emergency: Overtime Pay Betrayal" urging them to contact lawmakers immediately.
"Back-room maneuvering by the Bush administration and House Republican leaders has made it increasingly likely that the overtime pay protections we won will not make it out of Congress this year," the message stated. Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Restaurant Association and National Association of Manufacturers also are stepping up their lobbying as lawmakers enter final negotiations. In letters last week to lawmakers, the organizations argued current overtime rules are confusing and outdated.