Congress is angling to pull off a feat it hasn't accomplished in two years, and do it within the next week: Pass a couple of appropriations bills. (File photo / Agence France-Presse)
The continuing resolution that is keeping government running at close to last year's spending levels expires Nov. 18. But Congress is angling before then to pull off a feat it hasn't accomplished in two years: Pass a couple of appropriations bills.
Six weeks into fiscal 2012, lawmakers have yet to finish work on any of the dozen spending measures that set agencies' annual budgets. But they hope to give final approval to a package of three bills covering NASA and the Agriculture, Justice, Commerce, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development departments, along with a number of smaller agencies. Both the House and Senate have passed their own versions of the legislation, meaning that it's up to a joint conference committee to iron out the differences this week.
"Every indication is that they will," said Patrick Knudsen, a budget analyst with the Heritage Foundation think tank.
While the debt ceiling legislation approved three months ago set an overall $1.043 trillion cap on 2012 discretionary spending, the House and Senate versions differ in some details. The Senate legislation, for example, contains $3.2 billion in disaster-relief funds not in the House measure, Knudsen said. The two chambers also diverge on funding levels for HUD-administered Community Development Block Grants and other programs.
For agencies not included in the package, Congress will have to extend the continuing resolution that generally leaves spending levels slightly below fiscal 2011 thresholds.
That extension, which would run to some point in December, could be piggybacked onto the three-bill spending package, House Appropriations Committee spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said in an email.
Whatever the means, Knudsen and other experts expect lawmakers to approve the new continuing resolution without the brinkmanship that brought the government to the verge of a shutdown in April.
"I think federal employees should be less concerned than the last time we did this," said Sam Rosen-Amy, a budget analyst with OMB Watch, a research and advocacy group. "The situation is less confrontational, less highly charged."
Any extension will probably again delay the deadline for the cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service to make a $5.5 billion infusion into its retiree health care fund, originally due at the end of September. Because the agency says it can't make the legally required payment, lawmakers used the existing continuing resolution to push back the due date until Nov. 18.
Although the House-Senate supercommittee is supposed to deliver a package of at least $1.2 trillion in long-term budget savings by Nov. 23, that process is largely divorced from work on this year's spending bills, said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog organization.