By Emelie Rutherford

Legislative leaders cast doubt this week on Congress passing a fiscal year 2009 defense appropriations bill before a new president arrives next year, potentially freezing funding at current levels through a continuing resolution, a setup the Pentagon has decried.

House Appropriations defense subcommittee Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.) said he believes the FY ’09 appropriations process is "dead." His panel is still preparing to mark up its version of the legislation next Wednesday, he said, even though it appears Congress this year will not pass any of the 12 appropriations bills for FY ’09, which begins Oct. 1.

"I see a slight chance of defense being passed, but it’s very slight," Murtha told reporters at the Capitol Wednesday night. While he previously predicted there was a 50-50 chance of a defense spending bill passing, he said those chances have worsened.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates "said it’d be a disaster" if Congress does not pass a FY ’09 defense appropriations bill and the Pentagon instead has to rely on a continuing resolution (CR), Murtha said. The congressman said Gates relayed the sentiment during a Wednesday morning phone conversation.

"It would be very difficult for them to live with that," Murtha said about the CR. Such a resolution would keep FY ’09 funding at FY ’08 levels, likely until the arrival of the next president.

Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen warned Senate appropriators in May that multiple defense initiatives–including buying 14 Predator unmanned aircraft–would be scrapped if Pentagon funding is based on a CR for FY ’09 (Defense Daily, May 21).

Murtha said "we’ll know better next week" how House leaders plan to proceed with the appropriations process.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) has slowed work on the various appropriations bills, and no floor debates have been scheduled. Obey is upset with Republicans for procedural attempts to tack energy policy changes onto appropriations bills.

Obey and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) have all but said no FY ’09 appropriations bills will move this year.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) cast doubt yesterday on any FY ’09 appropriations bills passing this year, though he predicted if any succeed in the Senate they will be the defense and military-construction appropriations measures. The Senate potentially could weigh those two bills in September, he said. Congress is expected to adjourn for the year on Sept. 26.

Senate appropriators point to President Bush’s threat to veto spending bills surpassing his requested levels.

Reid told congressional reporters he does not expect Congress to return after the November elections for a lame-duck session.

"I hope we would do a continuing resolution until after Sen. Obama becomes president," Reid said, referring to the Democrat running for president against Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain.

Senate appropriations subcommittees have been instructed to continue working on their markups, Reid said. The Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee (SAC-D) has not yet announced a markup date.

SAC-D member Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said yesterday she could not predict the defense spending bill’s fate, and said the appropriations bills may not be passed and signed into law before the next president is sworn in.

"It’s impossible to know what the next few weeks will bring," she said. She noted there’s "a very short time frame" in which bills can be brought to the Senate floor, and that the process "is still not set in stone."

"All of us are moving the appropriations bills through the committee process so we have our legislation ready to go, whether it’s in a CR or an omnibus [bill] this year or early next year," Murray said. "But the fact is that today, what the president is saying, is he will veto these appropriations bills because they’re over his budget. There is no sense in us wasting time on this floor putting together bills that we believe, on a bipartisan basis, invest in this country the way that they should, to have them [vetoed]."

On the authorization side, the House passed the FY ’09 defense authorization bill May 22. The Senate Armed Services Committee cleared its version of the legislation April 30, though it is not clear if the measure will hit the Senate floor this month, as previously expected.