WASHINGTON - Funding for implementing the new health care law and other sticking points remain, but negotiators reported significant progress Tuesday on a $1.1 trillion spending bill to fund the government through September.
"We are looking at narrowing the differences, looking at ... how we can compromise without capitulation on both sides," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. After a meeting of the four principal negotiators - the top Democrats and Republicans on the House and Senate Appropriations committees - Mikulski was cautiously optimistic of reaching agreement on the massive bill later this week in hopes of a vote next week.
"Our subcommittee chairmen have really done 90 percent of the work. We are now at 10 percent, but this last 10 percent, like in any negotiation, is the toughest," Mikulski said. A top aide accompanying Mikulski back to her office told reporters that the budgets for the Pentagon and the Commerce, Justice, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs and Transportation departments are "virtually wrapped up."
But the two sides remain at odds over funding to implement so-called Obamacare and a 2010 overhaul of financial regulations, and they're still sorting through more than 130 policy items known as "riders" in Washington-speak, many of which are backed by conservatives seeking to derail Obama administration environmental and labor regulations.
Among the differences is giving the administration flexibility to certify that Egypt qualifies for U.S. military aid despite a law that bans such assistance after coups, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, the top Republican on the foreign aid panel.
The most controversial riders are likely to be jettisoned to the dismay of conservatives, many of whom will vote against the bill anyway over its funding of Obamacare. The issue sparked a 16-day partial shutdown of the government at the hands of House conservatives that GOP leaders are loath to repeat.
"I'm hopeful we'll work something out where neither side is very happy, but we'll work it out and Obamacare will continue to be implemented," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, responsible for a massive section of the measure funding the Labor and Health and Human Services departments. Harkin said another hang-up includes differences over funding to implement the new health care law and GOP-sought provisions to effectively block several union-friendly decisions by the National Labor Relations Board, including a 2011 change that made it more difficult for anti-union workers to petition to decertify a union.
Harkin predicted Democrats will carry the day in annual fights over abortion, which include a GOP-sought ban on federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
The goal is to finish writing the mammoth measure this week in anticipation of House and Senate votes before a Jan. 15 deadline to avert another government shutdown, but as a practical matter Congress still will likely have to pass a temporary funding measure to keep the government running after midnight next Wednesday.
The omnibus spending bill follows up on the budget pact negotiated by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., as the anticlimax to a 16-day partial government shutdown in October. A fresh battle over increasing the so-called debt limit looms next month, however, even as the threat of a second government shutdown fades.
The measure includes everything from fighting the spread of the Asian carp into the Great Lakes, ordering new F-35 fighter planes and funding health research to fighting wildfires, sending aid to Israel and Egypt and helping local governments build sewer systems. War funding will be essentially frozen at current levels while domestic programs will be funded at $492 billion - slightly above 2013 levels before a 5 percent mandatory across-the-board cut.
Supporters of the military are grateful for relief from another $20 billion round of automatic cuts in defense spending. The Pentagon's core budget will remain essentially flat at $520 billion, with just a $2 billion increase over the 2013 levels that caused furloughs, harmed readiness and slowed weapons procurement.
The negotiations promise to produce a foot-tall omnibus spending measure for the 2014 budget year that began in October that'll total about $1.1 trillion after $86 billion or so in war funding is tacked on to $1.012 trillion for core agency operations.
That's $25 billion above fiscal 2013, when automatic spending cuts slashed $64 billion from a massive appropriations bill that passed in March. But it is $45 billion higher than what would have been available had the budget talks fallen apart and forced a second full year of the mandatory cuts.
This appropriated spending in 2014 will be more than $30 billion below what was originally contemplated for 2013 and $46 billion below levels contemplated in the 2011 budget deal.
One source of relief is Afghanistan war funding, which is exempt from the overall budget cap and can be used as a piggy bank to beef up Pentagon spending. The administration requested $79 billion in May but House Republicans added $6 billion when moving the Pentagon's budget through the Appropriations Committee, though the increase was cut back by a floor vote. Negotiators are moving toward the more generous original House figure.