When Congress adjourned last month for the election, it appeared lawmakers would have more to do when they returned this week than haggle over how to fund federal domestic agencies in 2005.
Republican leaders held out the possibility of using the "lame duck" session to revamp the intelligence community along lines suggested by the Sept. 11 commission, and perhaps limit class-action lawsuits, a priority for business groups. GOP officials have not abandoned those goals. But barring last-minute breakthroughs, prospects do not appear good that either will be enacted before the 108th Congress ends.
House-Senate negotiators on the intelligence legislation acknowledged that time was running out. If so, the proposal will have to be restarted in the Congress that convenes in January. Some lawmakers also hope to reauthorize the government's main program for educating handicapped students, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Business lobbyists said last week they were urging lawmakers to attach the class-action bill to a big package of domestic spending legislation that must be enacted before Congress adjourns for the year, but they had received no guarantees.
That leaves action on a mammoth $385 billion "omnibus" spending bill for the 2005 fiscal year that began Oct. 1 as the main order of business. The bill, still taking shape, will lump together a new foreign aid bill and as many as eight other bills funding every agency except the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Defense and the District of Columbia.
After years of rapid growth in many domestic programs, Congress this year agreed to strict limits on discretionary spending not related to defense or counterterrorism. The Bush administration budget called for an increase in domestic spending amounting to six-tenths of 1 percent. Congress, bowing to fiscal conservatives, went one better and called for a freeze.
In effect, spending on popular domestic programs finally is being squeezed by the huge costs of fighting the war on terrorism at home and abroad. Congress approved a $391 billion defense spending bill for fiscal 2005, but the figure did not cover costs of the Iraq war. Congress in July approved $25 billion more for the war, and the administration is expected to seek as much as $75 billion in addition early next year.
Adding to the fiscal pressure is the soaring budget deficit, which has pushed the federal government close to a $7.4 billion statutory limit on borrowing. Republican leaders plan to attach to the omnibus bill a provision increasing the debt ceiling by $700 billion to $800 billion, according to GOP sources.
The funding constraints are squeezing NASA, Amtrak, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other agencies.
To save money -- and force the Bush administration to share the pain -- early versions of the annual spending bills slashed numerous White House priorities, including new funds for community colleges, the president's signature Millennium Challenge foreign aid program and even the American Masterpieces cultural program championed by Laura Bush.
The challenge now, said Sean M. Spicer, spokesman for the House Budget Committee, is for Congress to maintain "self-control." That could be especially difficult after an election, he suggested.
But a senior congressional aide said that "the election didn't change the fundamental problem: There's not enough money in these bills."
Some key Republicans agree. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said last month there was "an overwhelming need for more money" in the bills funding domestic spending.
The House and Senate are working under a self-imposed $821.9 billion ceiling for all spending requiring annual appropriations. Enacted bills funding defense, homeland security and the District have used up $436 billion of that total.
Senate versions of the domestic package contain $8 billion more spending than the House measure, as a result of accounting devices employed to pump up the bills to a level where they could win approval from senators on Stevens's committee.
Under pressure from fiscal conservatives, however, most of the gimmicks -- other than one that will ensure help for elderly and poor people's winter heating bills -- will be dropped, sources said. To stay within the budget target and still pay for additional spending on such key activities as veterans health care and education, GOP leaders plan a small cut in hundreds of programs.
Federal aid to education, running about $60 billion a year, could lose hundreds of millions of dollars. Republicans note, however, that the bill funding education, health and job training soared by 75 percent over the last seven years. "Everybody wants to take a hard line on spending, but everybody's got their pet rock," a GOP aide said. "This isn't easy to deal with when you have a near-zero-growth budget."
As of this weekend, many issues were unresolved, including one that could delay or even doom long-term funding for the Yucca Mountain, Nev., nuclear waste repository. Building a permanent storage site for used nuclear fuel is essential to reviving the U.S. nuclear industry. But Sen. Harry M. Reid (Nev.), who will succeed defeated Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) as the Senate's Democratic leader in the next Congress, opposes the Yucca site.
"His new position won't make him easier to deal with on this," a Senate Republican aide said.
Some controversial riders added earlier to the spending legislation may be dropped. Those include eased restrictions on trade with Cuba, a provision partially blocking the administration's new rules on overtime pay eligibility and a provision that would set aside administration rules encouraging private contractors to compete for jobs performed by federal workers.
Staff writers Charles Babington and Helen Dewar contributed to this report.