Monday, April 21, 2008

Legislative Update: Budget and Appropriations

Washington was consumed with a visiting celebrity last week and, as a result, it was fairly quiet on the legislative front. The Pope came to town, and it meant the cancellation of countless hearings, meetings and events that had been scheduled in the Capitol. Instead, members attended White House meetings and a large mass at the new Washington Nationals baseball stadium.

One of the cancellations was the hearing scheduled in the Senate on the FY 2009 budget for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education. Margaret Spellings, secretary of education, had been scheduled to appear, along with Michelle Rhee, DC Schools chancellor, and Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford professor and teacher preparation expert. It is unclear if the hearing was simply postponed or in fact cancelled.

There were no announcements from the conferees on the committee to negotiate a final FY 2009 budget resolution. Rep. Spratt (D-S.C.), House Budget Committee chairman, was quoted as saying that a "deeming resolution," which provides guidance to the Appropriations Committees that are anxious to begin drafting spending bills, will be forthcoming if the conferees remain at an impasse. As reported last week, all subcommittees have been told to have bills ready for mark-up and floor debate by the Memorial Day recess.

The buzz on the Hill this week when members were present was about the president's $108 billion request for funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Democrats want to add funds for what they consider to be domestic emergencies. There was even talk of a $35 billion economic stimulus package that would include extended unemployment benefits, increase food stamps, provide funds for schools in the West that are not getting timber revenues and monies for a variety of construction projects. To mute the president's veto threats there was also talk of increasing the war funding to $170 billion, making another emergency supplemental this fall unnecessary. Republicans on Capitol Hill acknowledged that this would be a hard offer for the administration to refuse.

And finally, to address fears that access to student loan capital will be squeezed given the faltering economy, the House of Representatives passed a student loan bill designed to stabilize the program and offer relief to needy students and families. There was speculation that this might become the engine that propels the Higher Education Act Reauthorization bill, also stuck in a conference committee, across the finish line to the president's desk by the Memorial Day recess.

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