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APPROPRIATIONS PROCESS UNDERWAY…SORT OF: Senate Appropriations Committee Passes Education Funding Bill While House Appropriations Committee Delays; Final Decisions Not Expected Until 2009

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-WI) called the move a “cheap political stunt.”

In mid-June, Congress began an appropriations process that will likely last into early next year because of differences between President Bush and Democrats in Congress over how much to spend. In crafting their plans, Democrats in the House and Senate rejected numerous funding cuts in the Bush budget while also increasing spending for certain domestic priorities. As a result, the difference between the president’s budget and the plan adopted in the House of Representatives is about $21.1 billion. The Senate’s plan comes in slightly lower at $20.6 billion.

On June 26, both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees were scheduled to consider their respective versions of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Education appropriations bill. By the end of the day, the Senate Appropriations Committee had passed its bill, but the timetable for the House version was unclear.

The Senate Appropriations Committee bill would provide the U.S. Department of Education with $61.8 billion, an increase of $2.6 billion over the president’s budget, which proposed freezing funding at last year’s level. Among individual programs, the Senate committee would provide $14.5 billion for Title I, an increase of $630 million, and $100 million for statewide data systems, an increase of $51.1 million. (A chart containing funding levels for other education programs is available here.

The House version of the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill would provide $64 billion for the U.S. Department of Education, an increase of $4.8 billion over last year. But instead of voting on the bill, the committee adjourned after Representative Jerry Lewis (R-CA), the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, offered an amendment to strip the text from the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill and replace it with the text from the appropriations bill for the U.S. Department of the Interior. House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-WI) called the move a “cheap political stunt;” Lewis maintained that the passage of the Interior bill would help alleviate rising gas prices before the Fourth of July.

After this snafu, it was unclear when the committee might consider the bill, which would normally be needed to fund these government agencies starting October 1, 2008, when FY 2009 begins. However, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL) said that he did not expect the Senate to vote on any of the annual appropriations bills this summer except for one that funds the Department of Defense.

Given the partisan tensions and unclear schedule in the House of Representatives, the need for sixty votes to accomplish almost anything in the Senate, and the standoff between Democrats in Congress and President Bush over spending levels, it is increasingly likely that Congress will not pass any appropriations bills that would fund government agencies other than the Defense Department for FY 2009 until well after the November elections.  Rather, they are likely to pass a continuing resolution that will keep governmental agencies operating at current spending levels until a new president takes control of the White House and negotiations can resume.

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