In big step toward unsnarling long-delayed spending bills for fiscal 2003, the Senate has approved a $390-billion package funding all the non-defense federal programs, including many large construction accounts. The Senate vote during the evening of Jan. 23 was 69-29.

But one more big hurdle remains: The Senate must reconcile its figures with the House, whose spending recommendations differ for most programs. That House-Senate conference could begin as early as the week of Jan. 27.

For construction, the top issue in conference will be highway construction dollars. The Senate bill recommends $31.8 billion for the federal-aid highway obligation ceiling, the same level as in 2002. The House supports $27.7 billion for 2003. The Associated General Contractors is pushing for the Senate figure and is "steadfastly opposed to any cut in the highway fund," says Peter Loughlin, AGC's senior director for congressional relations.

Before approving the overall package, the GOP beat back amendments offered by Democrats to fund on-the-job training programs and aid for health care providers. The Senate also defeated a Democratic proposal to restrict a White House plan to put a large number of federal jobs up for competition with private contractors (ENR Magazine, 12/23, p. 10).

Among key construction programs, the new Senate omnibus measure recommends $31.8 billion for the federal-aid highway obligation ceiling, the same level as in 2002. Corps of Engineers construction would receive $1.6 billion, down $100 million from 2002 and Dept. of Energy defense environmental management, $6.5 billion, about the same as last year's mark.

Floor amendments added about $11 billion for education, drought relief, election reform and Medicare to the original bill developed by Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). To hold down the measure's total, lawmakers imposed 2.9% cuts in nearly all agency accounts from Stevens' initial plan. But highways was spared that cut, and remained at $31.8 billion, a committee aide says.

Congress passed only two of the 13 annual appropriation bills--those covering military construction and other Dept. of Defense programs--by last Oct. 1, the start of fiscal 2003. Accounts funded by the other 11 bills have been operating since October under a series of short-term "continuing resolutions." In general, the "CRs" funded the non-defense accounts at their 2002 levels.

GOP leaders hope to have a final 2003 bill completed by Jan. 28 when President Bush gives his annual State of the Union address. If the House does not adopt the Senate version that goal won’t be met. The more likely scenario is the deadline will shift to late February, predicts Loughlin. If no agreement is reached within the next few weeks, Congress may approve another CR that funds programs through September at last year’s levels. With Bush’s fiscal 2004 budget proposal due Feb. 3, lawmakers will not want to extend debate on the current budget for too much longer, says Loughlin.