Fiscal 2011 spending bills likely put off until after elections

House Democrats decide against adopting a budget blueprint and may delay required appropriations measures, including those for HHS funding.

By Doug Trapp — Posted Aug. 30, 2010

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With only weeks remaining until the Oct. 1 start of fiscal 2011, Congress is far from approving its mandatory spending bills and probably will not complete them until after the Nov. 2 midterm elections.

Late appropriations bills have become increasingly common for Congress, which each year must adopt 13 spending bills to keep the federal government running. In recent years, lawmakers have adopted continuing resolutions to fund the government at existing levels for a few weeks or months. Then members typically have combined some of the 13 spending bills into one or more omnibus measures to be adopted before the continuing resolutions expire, often late in the calendar year.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D, Md.) said Congress would not adopt the customary budget resolution for 2011, which would provide a blueprint for spending bills, because Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform has not finished its work. That panel has been asked to develop a proposal by Dec. 1 to balance the federal budget by 2015.

"It isn't possible to debate and pass a realistic long-term budget until we've considered the bipartisan commission's deficit-reduction plan," Hoyer said.

Instead, the House on July 1 approved a budget enforcement resolution on a 215-210 vote, with 38 Democrats opposed, which includes a nonbinding ceiling for federal spending. Republicans accused Democrats of using the fiscal commission as an excuse to delay adopting a budget until after the Nov. 2 elections. Both parties in past years have put off passing budgets, citing various reasons for doing so.

The critics have a point, said Steve Bell, a former staff director and chief of staff for retired Sen. Pete Domenici (R, N.M.). Bell is a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank focused on middle-ground solutions in health care, the budget and other areas.

Bell said Democrats -- especially in the House -- did not want to vote on a budget resolution before the elections because it probably would have required either program cuts or tax increases, both of which could be unpopular with voters. "This is a blow to fiscal discipline," he said.

The lack of a budget resolution is also significant because it is a sign that Democrats are unable to agree on spending levels even among themselves, said James Horney, PhD, director of federal fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank. "That's what's making it hard to get anything done."

After the elections, Congress also must decide how to react to the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts on Jan. 1, 2011. President Obama proposed renewing some tax cuts, enacted in 2001 and 2003, for most Americans but allowing them to expire for everyone earning more than $250,000 a year.

Congress did make some progress on fiscal 2011 spending bills before the August recess. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved 10 of the 13 fiscal 2011 appropriations bills, including annual spending for the Depts. of Health and Human Services and Labor.

The Senate committee adopted an HHS spending bill that would match many of Obama's fiscal 2011 requests, including $32 billion for the National Institutes of Health, a 3.5% increase from fiscal 2010. The committee's bill would provide $90 million in funding for primary care physician training, an increase of $51 million. It also would provide $53 million to repay nurses' student loans, more than double the fiscal 2010 spending level.

The full House has approved two appropriations bills, one to help fund the military and the other for the Depts. of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.

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