2(b), or Not 2(b)

The House and Senate appropriations committees just achieved another benchmark in what promises to be a long and contentious battle over spending. The panels ratified overall spending caps—dubbed 302(b) allocations—for each of the 12 spending bills they hope to pass for fiscal year 2013. In a bow to The Bard, the committees opted “to take arms against a sea of troubles.”

They just did it differently—and strikingly so.

Under strong pressure from conservatives, the spending allocations adopted by the House committee total $1.028 trillion, $19 billion less than the discretionary cap agreed to in the debt limit law passed last summer. The Senate committee, which is controlled by Democrats, stuck to last year’s agreement. Though higher than the House total, the Senate cap of $1.047 trillion is still not much above the $1.043 trillion appropriated for fiscal year 2012.

Beyond the big difference in total spending, the way both panels broke down the allocations among the 12 spending bills also sets up some dramatic political fault lines.

Under the House plan, set out today by House appropriations committee head Hal Rogers (R-KY), defense would get $8 billion more than the Senate allotted and about $1 billion more than current spending. The House plan would continue Agriculture, Financial Services and Military Construction-VA at about the same levels as in fiscal year 2012, while most other bills would be reduced.

But two spending bills—Labor-HHS-Education and Transportation-HUD—together absorb more than half of the $19 billion in discretionary spending cuts set by the House committee.

In a very real sense, it appears that the House has unofficially designated the Labor-HHS-Education bill as a “bank” to finance the remaining spending bills. Odds are that the measure won’t make it to the House or Senate floor before Election Day anyway. After that, perhaps congressional leaders will find a way to at least partially restore funding for priority social programs—or maybe not.

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