When things appear too good to be true in the U. S. Congress, it is probably because they are. What began as a promising week in the House and Senate - there were reports of progress among budget resolution conferees and Higher Education Act conferees and a plan was in place to take up the emergency supplemental spending bill - soon disintegrated into chaos, if not bedlam. On the House floor, between Republican stalling tactics (holding votes open forever by members continually changing their minds) and protests from the Blue Dog coalition, the plan the leadership had carefully crafted to take up the emergency supplemental spending bill fell apart. Ultimately, the bill was pulled from the floor and the debate postponed until "next week."
The scenario in the Senate was similar. At the beginning of the week, Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Appropriations Committee chair, defied his leadership and declared his intent to mark up an emergency supplemental bill. The House and Senate leadership's plan was to bypass committee mark-ups to avoid loading up the supplemental with costly domestic spending items. By noon on Thursday, all of the wrangling and infighting prompted Byrd to announce the mark-up would be postponed for a week.
Both the House and Senate versions of the supplemental spending bill address education interests. Concerns include the funding and bill language necessary to delay for one year the implementation of Medicaid reforms that, if imposed, would transfer significant costs to schools and other providers. Also of interest, the Senate bill would provide funds for a critical rural schools program as well as $1.2 billion in "science funding" that would be shared between several federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation. A sticking point for House members who blocked debate on that chamber's version of the bill was the fact that a new education entitlement benefit for veterans was included in the proposal. The powerful, 52-member strong Blue Dog Coalition of fiscally conservative Democrats has been holding its ground on "pay-go" rules that say entitlement spending can't increase without necessary offsets. The new education benefit is expensive and isn't paid for.
Turning to the budget resolution stalemate, it was announced a few days ago that the Blue Dogs were satisfied with a plan presented by Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) to address a second pay-go issue; unfortunately, this progress was not enough to free a conference agreement and bring it to a vote. Resolving the overall difference in House- and Senate-proposed spending levels (a $3.5 billion argument) is proving to be tougher than imagined. The Higher Education Act conference also stalled over money. Many conferees continued to complain about the long list of new programs the bill would authorize. The latest count is 51.
At the end of the day, this is all about presenting bills on the House and Senate floors that can be passed by wide bi-partisan margins. Absent that kind of support, fears about the president standing on the sidelines, veto pen in hand, will continue to limit the scope of work for the 110th Congress. But Memorial Day is coming, and you know how much they like going home with something to brag about.