Congress Unlikely to Complete Budget Duties

U.S. lawmakers came back for a lame-duck session to finish work on 10 annual spending bills. The bills should have been done at the end of September. Now, it looks like not a single one will be completed.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

Lawmakers will be back on Capitol Hill this week for the final days of their post-election lame-duck session. And it now looks like they won't even finish their main task. Passing eight big annual spending bills that are now more than two months overdue.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: Former Minnesota Republican Congressman Bill Frenzel finds it puzzling that with Republicans in control of both Congress and the White House, they've had such a hard time passing budgets and finishing appropriations bills.

Representative BILL FRENZEL (Republican, Minnesota): It seems strange. On the other hand, I think that's probably one reason why the public relieved the Republicans of its command of the majorities in the Congress since they simply weren't able to get the job done.

WELNA: Who's to blame? Not the Appropriations Committees says Steve Ellis of the non-partisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. He says even though no budget got approved, standing committees in both chambers got their work done by July, and the House passed all but one of the annual spending bills. The problem was in the Senate.

Mr. STEVE ELLIS (Vice President, Taxpayers for Common Sense): It really came down to Majority Leader Frist and whether he was going to schedule time for those bills on the floor. And he failed top do so.

I mean, essentially, they decided that they are going to take up the most politically powerful bills, which was the Department of Defense Appropriations and Department of Homeland Security Appropriations, and ignored the rest in the hope that they would eventually get cleaned up in a lame-duck session or right before the election and that was a failed gambit.

WELNA: What GOP leaders had hoped to do was finish at least one standing bill in the lame-duck and then load it up with all other unfinished appropriations bills. This gigantic bill known as an omnibus, would have been hundreds of pages long and studded with earmarks - those specially funded projects that lawmakers slip into such bills to please constituents and contributors.

Congress also failed to carry out promised earmark reforms this year. So a group of fiscally conservative Republican senators - headed by Oklahoma's Tom Coburn - decided to prevent the one spending bill the Senate did pass in the lame-duck from moving forward.

Speaking from the Muskogee, Coburn says doing so may have made him the proverbial skunk at the picnic. But it also kept Congress from sweeping all the spending bills into an omnibus.

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): Well, an omnibus, number one, will include all the earmarks that are out there plus any other piece of junk that somebody might want to throw in to it and you'll never have a chance to look at it to see what's there. I definitely don't want to have an omnibus and I'd rather do each bill one at a time. And since we don't have the time to do it, let us wait until we do.

WELNA: Outgoing majority leader Frist seems to have given up on getting anymore annual spending bills passed. He put out a safe on Friday saying he intends to pass another short-term stopgaps spending bill by the end of this week.

Speaking from his home in Searchlight, Nevada, incoming Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid, left opened the possibility that the so-called continuing resolution that keeps the government from shutting down may well go on for the rest of the fiscal year.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): The one we're going to do now we hope it goes until February 1st or 2nd. Now, we would do one after that till the end of the year. But that has not been determined yet, but I think, in short hand, what I'm trying to say is that we can't do two appropriation bills in one year.

WELNA: Reid says the first thing the Democratic-run Senate will do in January is take up an earmarks overhaul bill, which he claims will be the most significant ethics reform since Watergate.

Congress watchers like Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense said they all agreed to that promise that's because these spending bills are not loaded with earmarks, they'll be far less likely to be held up by the likes of Senator Tom Coburn.

David Welna, NPR News, The Capitol.

AMOS: To see what else is on the outgoing Congress' agenda, visit our Web site at npr.org

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