Congressional Endgame Still Unclear

Congressional Endgame Still Unclear

In a headline this morning, the National Journal (subscription required) cries “Omnibus Rhetoric Hints at Government Shutdown.”

While Democrats in the House apparently have resigned themselves to passage of President Obama’s tax deal with Senate Republicans, the endgame for the FY2011 appropriations process remains murky. The House passed a year-long Continuing Resolution (CR) last week to replace the current CR, which expires Saturday at midnight, but Senate Democrats want to pass an omnibus appropriations bill that contains all 12 of the regular appropriations bills instead. The Senate omnibus bill totals $1.108 billion compared with $1.089 in the House CR. The dollar difference is not nearly as controversial as the fact that the Senate bill contains $2.2 billion in earmarks while the House bill has none.

Earmarks have become a symbol of wasteful government spending and all that is wrong in Washington. Republicans in the House and Senate have vowed to force an end to the practice, where members of Congress designate funding for special projects in their home states or districts. But some want that ban to start next year, not this year There’s the rub. Republican Senators are among those who have millions of dollars in earmarks in the Senate omnibus bill. Politico reports that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) got $112 million in earmarks, for example. According to Politico, the Senator with the biggest earmark total is Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, with $560 million. Top Democrats also fared well according to Politico. For example, Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, has $421 million in earmarks and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has $252 million.

What does all that mean? Setting aside who got how much for their home states, the key point is whether objections by some in the Senate and many in the House will derail the omnibus bill, or delay its passage beyond the expiration of the current CR. The National Journal reports that Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) is considering whether to force the entire 1,900 page bill to be read aloud during Senate consideration of the legislation. That would take an estimated 50 hours, which could be completed by Saturday, followed by debate on the bill. Final passage might not occur until Tuesday, after which it would have to go to the House for consideration. With the current CR expiring on Saturday at midnight, if another temporary CR is not passed, the government would shut down, sparking the National Journal headline.

Like the final minute of a football game, anything can happen at the end of a Congress. It is only Thursday and there is plenty of time for compromises to be struck. Closing down the government does not appear to be in the best interest of either political party and as the tax bill demonstrates, Washington politicans can decide to find solutions even though individual pieces may be very difficult to swallow.

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