WASHINGTON -- Legislators trying to put the finishing touches on a $1.1 trillion spending bill reported Tuesday that they have made major progress in recent days in advance of a meeting of the four principal negotiators.
Sticking points remain, including language that would give the administration flexibility to certify that Egypt qualifies for U.S. military aid despite a law that bans such aid after coups, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, the top Republican on the foreign aid panel.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, responsible for a massive section of the measure funding the Labor and Health and Human Services departments, said that his part of the bill is 90 percent done but that hang-ups remain. They include differences over funding to implement the new health care law and GOP-sought provisions to effectively block several union-friendly decisions by the National Labor Relations Board, including a 2011 NLRB move that made it more difficult for anti-union workers to petition to decertify a union.
"I'm hopeful. We've made good progress and we're going to meet later today," said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee. "We'll have a better idea of how we're running then."
"We are looking at narrowing the differences, looking at ... how we can compromise without capitulation on both sides," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.
A meeting between Shelby, Mikulski, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., and senior House Democrat Nita Lowey of New York was slated for mid-afternoon to work on remaining sticking points, which include efforts by Rogers to ease Environmental Protection Agency regulations affecting the coal industry.
The goal is to finish writing the mammoth measure this week in anticipation of House and Senate votes before a Jan. 15 deadline to avert another government shutdown, but as a practical matter Congress will likely have to pass a temporary funding measure to avoid a government shutdown after midnight next Wednesday. The bill fills in thousands of details across the approximately one-third of the federal budget devoted to the day-to-day operations of federal agencies.
The omnibus spending bill follows up on the budget pact negotiated by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash, as the anticlimax to a 16-day partial government shutdown in October. A fresh battle over increasing the so-called debt limit looms next month, however, even as the threat of a second government shutdown fades.
The budget deal, which easily passed the House and Senate last month, traded longer-term spending cuts and some fee increases for short-term relief from last year's automatic spending cuts. The process could be compared to building a house: Last month's deal laid the foundation; this month, the House and Senate appropriations committees build the frame, put up the walls and finish the interior.
The measure includes everything from fighting the spread of the Asian carp into the Great Lakes, ordering new F-35 fighter planes and funding health research to fighting wildfires, sending aid to Israel and Egypt, and helping local governments build sewer systems. The spending is allocated line by line. Appropriations committee aides worked pretty much nonstop over the Christmas-New Year's holiday break putting it all together.
Even by the opaque standards of the appropriators, the numbers crunching during the past three weeks has been remarkably secretive. The negotiations promise to produce a foot-tall omnibus spending measure for the 2014 budget year that began in October that'll total about $1.1 trillion after $86 billion or so in war funding is tacked on to $1.012 trillion for core agency operations.
That's $25 billion above fiscal 2013, when automatic spending cuts known as sequestration slashed $64 billion from a massive appropriations bill that passed in March. But it is $45 billion higher than what would have been available had the budget talks fallen apart and forced a second full year of sequestration.
But the glass-half-empty view is that this appropriated spending in 2014 will be more than $30 billion below what was originally contemplated for 2013 and $46 billion below levels contemplated in the 2011 budget deal.
One source of relief is Afghanistan war funding, which is exempt from the overall budget cap and can be used as a piggy bank to beef up Pentagon spending. The administration requested $79 billion in May but House Republicans added $6 billion when moving the Pentagon's budget through the Appropriations Committee, though the increase was cut back by a floor vote. Negotiators are moving toward the more generous original House figure.
"They are just looking for some predictability, stability," said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., chairman of the House subcommittee that writes the Pentagon's budget. "I think we have it."