WASHINGTON – Republicans who are about to lose power in Congress began a long-shot bid Tuesday to finish budgeting nearly half a trillion dollars for domestic agencies.
But GOP leaders have no game plan to do nearly a year's work in a lame-duck session likely to last just a few weeks.
The difficulties facing the Senate became immediately evident when what should have been a largely trouble-free bill, a $94 billion funding measure for veterans programs and military construction projects, ran into trouble.
Farm Belt lawmakers, led by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., tried to attach $4.9 billion worth of emergency farm aid to the veterans bill, producing hours of deadlock on the Senate floor.
Outgoing Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., complained that Democrats were moving to bust the budget before even assuming control of the Senate.
"The first amendment brought to the floor of the United States Senate after the election increases the national debt by $4.9 billion," Gregg said. "This is a daylight robbery of the Treasury."
The impasse was resolved, and the veterans bill passed by a voice vote, after GOP leaders agreed to move Wednesday to the agriculture funding bill with the understanding that Conrad could offer his farm aid amendment there.
The uphill task of finishing spending bills for fiscal 2007 is made more difficult by GOP conservatives' distaste for pork-laden "omnibus" spending bills that have frequently been the means of wrapping up unfinished congressional business.
With nine of 11 spending bills still unfinished more than six weeks after the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year, the House is slated to take up a stopgap funding bill funding through Dec. 8 agencies whose budgets have yet to pass. House leaders have promised lawmakers that the postelection lame-duck session will be over by Dec. 15.
On the broader budget front, both Republicans and Democrats on the powerful Appropriations Committees would like to wrap up their work before Congress switches hands in January.
Republicans would like the chance to stamp a final imprint on the budget before losing control of Congress. Also at stake is control over thousands of parochial projects that are so important to lawmakers.
Democrats, for their part, want to wrap up the spending bills in order to get a fresh start on next year's business.
House Republicans leaders, including Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, have yet to decide whether to even try to wrap up the spending bills, which would fund the Education, Interior, Transportation and Agriculture departments, among others.
Boehner is embroiled in a race to become minority leader, replacing Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois as the No. 1 House Republican, and he isn't making any moves yet to endorse the idea of a huge omnibus budget bill.
"Nobody knows for sure until leadership races get out of the way," said Rep. Joe Knollenberg, R-Mich., who chairs a panel responsible for transportation and housing funding.
Meanwhile, House Republicans stumbled in their efforts to give President Bush a victory on a Vietnam free trade bill as Bush headed to Vietnam Tuesday night. The measure failed to win a supermajority House floor vote Monday evening under procedures reserved for noncontroversial bills, and GOP leaders opted against bringing it back under regular rules requiring a bare majority.
The setback for the Vietnam deal could be a hint of the trouble facing the rest of Bush's trade agenda, which includes a string of free trade agreements and global trade liberalization talks.
Also Tuesday, the Senate approved by unanimous voice vote a move by Susan Collins, R-Maine, to keep alive an oversight office in Iraq responsible for exposing waste in U.S. efforts for rebuilding Iraq. The special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction tracks spending in the multibillion-dollar effort to rebuild Iraq, a process moving slowly because of corruption and overcharging as well as wartime violence.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., had moved to shut down the agency by October as Congress passed the annual defense policy bill.
Hunter's strong-arm move caught many lawmakers by surprise and prompted immediate calls for its reversal. The inspector general's work has resulted in four criminal convictions and, most recently, evidence that a Halliburton subsidiary exploited federal regulations to hide details on its contract performance.