Last week there were signs of life in congressional consideration of FY2012 appropriations bills.  After many weeks of little formal activity on appropriations in either chamber, the Senate voted to proceed on a bill that combines three FY2012 appropriations bills into one.  The so-called “Minibus” appropriations bill, including the Agriculture, Commerce/Justice/Science, and Transportation/HUD bills, will come up for a vote after the Senate returns from recess on October 31, 2011. 

Of the bills included in the “Minibus,” the House has passed only Agriculture.  The full House Appropriations Committee has reported out the Commerce/Justice/Science bill, but has not yet completed Transportation/HUD.  However, if the Senate passes the combined bill, they will move to conference the three-in-one bill with the House quickly and send it to the president. 

This would set the stage for completion of the nine remaining FY2012 appropriations bills—Defense, Energy & Water, Financial Services, Homeland Security, Interior & Environment, Labor/HHS/Education, Legislative, Military Construction/VA, and State/Foreign Operations.  There are a number of scenarios possible for Congress to move these bills. 

The House and Senate could try to pass and conference the bills separately and send them to the president.  However, this is highly unlikely as there doesn’t appear to be enough floor time available for all necessary action.

Congress could try to package one or more additional small “minibus” appropriations bills.  They could use the Military Construction/VA (the only bill that has passed both the House and the Senate), Defense, or Homeland Security, (both considered “must-pass” bills) bills to carry a few other bills.  Or, they could pass one more “minibus” bill and bundle the remaining bills into one final bill.    

If any of these incremental approaches fail, Congress could combine the remaining bills in one omnibus bill, even though many House members reject the idea of a large omnibus bill.

No matter which scenario finally emerges, House and Senate leaders hope to avoid a drawn-out appropriations process similar to what occurred last year, when Congress passed seven CRs over almost seven months.  Nevertheless, there are serious impediments to a final agreement under any scenario.

Some Members and Senators think the FY2012 total discretionary level (funding provided in appropriations bills) is too high.  Even though congressional leaders have lined up to support the $1.043 trillion called for in the Budget Control Act, some House and Senate Republicans are still pressing to lower this amount.  And, there are widespread differences between the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate on funding levels and program content on a number of appropriations bills. 

All this means the appropriations picture is still very cloudy and the path to completion is highly uncertain.  And, time is running out.  Even if the “Minibus” bill is approved and there is some movement on other appropriations bills, it is not likely that final agreement can be reached on all FY2012 appropriations bills before the current CR runs out on November 18.  As a result, discussion is already underway to extend the CR, possibly until mid-December.