House and Senate appropriators Thursday gathered to begin a conference to work out differences on a spending measure for the first time since 2009.
The 18 Senators and 20 House members gathered in a basement room of the Capitol to begin hammering out their differences on a bill to fund the government’s agriculture, criminal justice, transportation and housing agencies.
Their hope is to hammer out a compromise that would outline spending for a chunk of government through September 2012. But they must move quickly. Under a timeline outlined at the conference meeting by House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), the conference would conclude its work the week of Nov. 14 — allowing for the House’s recess next week — and both chambers would hold final votes on the measure by Nov. 17.
That would be one day before the funding measure now keeping government operating would expire. It would allow no time for the House and Senate to get tangled in an unexpected fight that would delay passage, a worrisome prospect for a Congress that has three times this year brought the government to the brink of a shutdown over spending disputes.
Still, appropriators said Thursday’s joint conference meeting was an important step toward avoiding a showdown.
“The time has come to make the best of a bad situation and to move forward with our bills as rapidly and efficiently as possible,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) told the group.
The bill groups together three of the 12 measures outlining spending through September 2012 that Congress was supposed to have approved by the end of last month.
Instead, Congress adopted a resolution that continues last year’s spending policies and keeps government operating through Nov. 18. Now, leaders in both chambers are hoping to reach a quick resolution on the so-called minibus bill and settle spending for part of government into next year.
They plan to attach another continuing resolution that would keep the rest of government running into December while they continue negotiations.
But to get that done, they’ll need to broker a compromise on the minibus quickly.
Thursday’s meeting was introductory — Rogers said subcommittee chairmen will now get to work to discuss individual provisions of the bill. But it allowed House and Senate members to express their relief that a conference is being held at all.
Since 2009, government has been funded through a series of temporary measures and omnibus bills adopted at the last minute with little of the scrutiny entailed in the regular order of moving 12 bills one at a time.
“We’ve not had a perfect process, as we all know,” Rogers said . But, he added, “it’s been a huge improvement over previous years.”