Monday, May 05, 2008

Budget and Appropriations

While Congress made progress on addressing threatened student loan access concerns last week, work on the FY 2009 budget resolution and the emergency war supplemental spending bill remained stalled. Tensions were running so high on the House floor that Republicans refused a request that the Higher Education Act (HEA), which was also stalled in a conference committee, be extended for another 30 days by objecting to the consideration of an "extender" on the House's suspension calendar. The House did manage to come to agreement on a bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, but when that bill came up in the Senate, similar tensions filled the air, and little progress was made.

Periodically during the week it appeared that budget resolution differences between the two chambers would be resolved. Ken Conrad (D-N.D.), Senate Budget Committee chair, convinced the House Blue Dog Coalition to back off on insisting that reconciliation instructions be included in the final bill. John Spratt (D-S.C.), House Budget chair, repeated all week that he thought "splitting the difference" between House and Senate spending levels for the year ($3.5 billion is at stake) was a reasonable solution. But still, the conference drags on. As of Friday morning, leadership in Congress was holding out hope for a vote during the week of May 12, allowing just enough time to meet a Memorial Day deadline.

Similar yo-yo like conversations and reports emerged from talks about how Congress would address the president's request for $108 billion to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By week's end, Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate majority leader, had decided that Memorial Day was not an important deadline for the military after all. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, slowed the cogs that were at work by announcing a full committee mark-up of a supplemental bill for this week. Leadership in both Houses had hoped to control the debate on the supplemental by writing a bill and then taking it to first the House and then the Senate floors, bypassing appropriators all around. Byrd would have none of that. Ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, Jerry Lewis (R-CA) endorsed Byrd's action.

This brings us back to the refusal by Republicans to consider even the non-controversial extension of the HEA, preferring expiration of the law to compromising with their Democratic colleagues. To add to the confusion, after insisting that adding any money above $108 billion to the supplemental (Democrats and Republicans alike believe there are domestic emergencies that compel immediate consideration) would result in a veto, the president himself asked that $750 million be added for emergency international food aid. By week's end, Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), House majority leader, was tiring of predicting when these issues would be resolved and joined Reid in downplaying the importance of the Memorial Day Recess.

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