WASHINGTON – Democrats controlling the House are promising to freeze the budgets of most Cabinet departments while wrapping Congress' unfinished annual spending bills into a single catchall measure.
The 423-page measure, unveiled in the wee hours Wednesday, would cap the agencies' operating budgets at $1.2 trillion, the level of the budget year that ended in September. That's about 4 percent less than President Barack Obama asked for.
There are many exceptions to the freeze. Health care programs for veterans and the military would get a boost, as would the Pell Grant program for low-income college students. People serving in the military would get a 1.4 percent pay raise, but civilian federal workers would have their salaries frozen, as requested by Obama last week.
The bill also would provide $159 billion to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A widely backed food safety bill is hitching a ride on the legislation. The measure passed the Senate by a 75-25 vote last week but got caught in a snag because it contained revenue provisions that, under the Constitution, must originate in the House.
Senate Democrats are working on a different approach that would provide slightly more money and would include thousands of pet projects sought by lawmakers. It's unclear whether that measure can get enough support from Republicans to pass. The House bill is free of such "earmarks."
The House could pass its measure as early as Wednesday — over Republican protests that it still spends too much money and that they won't have had enough time to review it. House Republicans want a short-term measure to punt the unfinished budget business into January, when they will assume the majority.
The bill combines the annual operating budgets for every federal department or agency. In an unprecedented collapse of the federal budget process, not a single one of the 12 annual spending bills has yet passed Congress.
The bill, combined with a massive measure to extend the Bush-era tax cuts, extend unemployment benefits and cut the payroll tax, represents the bulk of Congress' unfinished work as the lame-duck session approaches its close.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., said the legislation would "salvage some investments which over the long haul just might create more jobs than a tax break for millionaires."
The underlying bill would provide the Pentagon $513 billion for core operations, which is a 1 percent increase to cover pay and health care, but $17 billion less than requested by Obama in February.
The Department of Homeland Security would see its budget frozen rather than rising almost 3 percent as Obama sought.
Foreign aid programs, however, would receive a $2.2 billion — more than 4 percent — increase to fund counterinsurgency programs by the Pakistani government, help stabilize Iraq and meet long-standing commitments to Israel and Egypt.
The bill also contains $624 million to implement the nuclear weapons treaty with Russia, known as New START, that's pending before the Senate.
In the Senate, Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, backed by Democratic leaders, has fashioned an "omnibus" spending measure — providing almost $20 billion more than the House bill — that he wants to substitute for the measure being passed across the Capitol.
Such omnibus measures have been a routine but oft-criticized way for Congress to wrap up its unfinished work. Only two spending bills have passed the House and not a single one has passed the Senate.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., opposes Inouye's move, but GOP members of the Appropriations Committee, such as Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, are open to the idea.
It's not clear how strongly McConnell will push against the omnibus measure.
But any move to pass Inouye's earmark-laced omnibus measure is sure to whip up howls of protest from anti-earmark lawmakers and tea party activists.
"It would just be a terrible thing for the Republican Party to do after we just voted to stop all the earmarks," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a tea party favorite. "We're not going to have one on the floor if there's any way we can stop it."
Republicans in both the House and the Senate have promised to give up earmarks, though the Senate pledge applies only to the next couple of years — and not to the current budget cycle.