Can Congress repeat that championship budget year of 1996?

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Baseball players are not the only “boys of summer.” With the return of America’s pastime, also come the Congressional appropriations and spending bills.

Just like the championship year of 1996, Congress followed a government shutdown and worked with a Democratic White House to get a budget passed by October 1— the fiscal “fall classic” – to keep federal agencies running for another year.

As in the long baseball season, says David Rogers of Politico, there were both triumphs and challenges. Seven bills made it on their own, while the remaining six were bundled into an omnibus legislation passed on a rare Saturday evening meeting after lengthy negotiations with Trent Lott, Senate Majority Leader at the time.

Could it happen again?  And if not, why, asks Rogers?

“1996 is the model,” says Senate Appropriations Committee chair Barbara Mikulski, who concedes that to get the job done, multi-bill packages must be part of the process. “I don’t know how many will be one by one, but with the popularity of Noah, I might be doing it as two-by-twos.”

Mikulski’s House counterpart, Rep. Hal Rogers, is getting an early start — the earliest of any Appropriation Committee chair in years. Next week, there should already be two markups, with a full committee hearing sometime soon afterwards. There is also a 64-page first-draft bill for $71.5 billion to the Department of Veterans Affairs in discretionary funding and construction projects.

This is before the Congressional Budget Office even finished evaluating President Barack Obama’s budget requests.

As for Rep. Paul Ryan’s newest 10-year budget plan, which he unveiled last week, many see it as a nonstarter. Filled with headline-making political visions, it falls short in physical laws. The nuts-and-bolts work in Appropriations will be the true test — proof that Republicans can actually govern leading up to November’s midterms.

Since Ryan hammered out a two-year budget deal in December, Appropriations do have several clear guidelines as to how to allocate domestic versus defense spending in the $1.014 trillion fiscal 2015 budget, set to begin Oct. 1.

Several programs close to Obama are prime targets for cuts, such as the massive labor, health and education funds central to the president’s prekindergarten initiative. Cuts there could free up dollars that Rodgers can commit to Western states for water projects and firefighting. New aviation fees, also opposed by Rodgers, when combined with health care funding cuts, could also help the chair support a homeland security bill he once championed.

All of this financial wrangling, important as it is, represents only 5 percent of the total budget.

“The swings aren’t that big … We’ll meet in the middle,” Rogers tells Politico.

Mikulski and Rogers are currently far ahead of their 1996 forerunners, who at this same point were struggling with resolutions unfinished from the December 1995 shutdown.

However, in 1996, despite the feud between the White House and Congress, things were accomplished — something that seems to have been lost since then.

Some question if that can happen again.

Earmarks, which helped the budgetary game advance in 1996, are no more. Repeating the same collaboration as two decades ago at the leadership level will also hard, particularly in an election year with the balance of the Senate up for grabs and the internal discord in the GOP so strong.

For his part, Rogers is moving a few bills early, as a sign the he can get things going, and verify that compromise is certainly possible.

Mikulski, with her first full committee markup scheduled for May 22, opening up the potential for four weeks, between June and July, of Senate floor time— not enough for all 12 bills separately, but enough for multi-bill packages, same as in 1996.

“That’s the general framework,” Mikulski says. “It’s not a blueprint, but it’s a good model for us to be thinking about.”

June, in the heat of appropriations season, Senate Republicans will get their first real test, and they have to decide how much they want to play ball.

One strategy is to stall, with the GOP hope on reclaiming the Senate in November, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell favors pushing ahead. Another shutdown crisis would do nothing to help any re-election effort.

Just like in 1996. 

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.