There is still little solid information about how Congress and the Administration will enact eleven "must pass" appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2003. Congress will not be coming back into town until January, and while there are various plans being floated about how to resolve this impasse, no one can predict how this will all turn out.
Among those departments and agencies that are still be funded at last year's levels are the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Education. Several of these budgets are in some of the most contentious unresolved appropriations bills. Only the two defense-related appropriations bills are now law.
The 108th Congress will convene on January 7, with the Republican party back in control of both chambers. Looming ahead of them is President Bush's State of the Union Address on January 28. The President has made it clear that he would like the appropriations bills passed before he makes this speech. That gives Congress three weeks to find a solution to what has eluded them for months.
Standing in the way of a resolution of this impasse is $9 to $15 billion of proposed spending, the amount being dependent on who is counting. That is the amount that the Senate appropriations bills exceed the overall $750 billion limit advocated by both the White House and House Republicans. No one is budging.
There is a range of strategies to get these bills passed. There is hope that some of the eleven bills might be passed separately. The outlook seems more promising for a single, large omnibus bill containing all of the outstanding appropriations bills. The first step in the crafting of this bill would be agreement on what its total price tag should be. To come in at the President's level some cuts would have to be made, and no one can predict with any certainty what they might entail. If this process goes forward, the ultimate department and agency budgets will be determined by the House and Senate leadership, White House, and key appropriators. The measure would come to the floor for a single up-or-down vote.
Another probability is the use of creative bookkeeping. There are a variety of time-tested measures that could be employed to make the numbers add up. Fiscal conservatives and the White House are against this approach.
The third outcome would result from a continuation of the impasse. If a resolution cannot be found by the President's Day holiday beginning February 17, Congress would most likely pass a continuing resolution to maintain flat funding at FY 2002 levels until October 1. This approach would have severe repercussions on the new Department of Homeland Security, and would deny the National Science Foundation its projected large budget increase. Forcing the Congress to take this approach would be the brand-new crop of thirteen appropriations bills that would need to get underway.
All of this will become clearer by mid-January.