Congress to keep government open until Dec. 8

Congress hopes to get the remaining 10 appropriations bills finished before it goes into its holiday recess Dec. 15.

The Senate took the first step last night by passing the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill. The House passed the bill in May. The two chambers now will come to agreement on the bill in a conference committee.

Additionally, the House passed a second continuing resolution to extend the fiscal 2006 spending until Dec. 8. The Senate is expected to pass the bill today or tomorrow. Congress passed the first resolution Sept. 29, which kept the government open until Nov. 17.

The Senate also is considering the Agriculture and related agencies spending bill today.

The Senate’s version of the Military Construction and VA bill includes a provision that would prohibit continued involvement in the e-government initiatives.

In the bill’s report, lawmakers said they are not convinced that the e-government initiatives “add value to the Department of Veterans Affairs,” and strips out all funding for the 25 Quicksilver projects.

“From fiscal year 2005 to fiscal year 2006, the VA's E-Gov obligations increased by 60.31 percent,” the report said. “For fiscal year 2007, VA's E-Gov request increases by 5.93 percent over the fiscal year 2006 enacted level, from $10.7 million to $11.4 million. The committee is concerned the funds needed for this program are growing at an alarming rate, while the utility to the VA is taking the opposite track.”

The committee asked that future budget requests for e-government initiatives “include a detailed explanation of how they directly benefit” VA.

The White House said in a Statement of Administration Policy that it “strongly opposes” the language.

“Prohibiting VA’s continued implementation of these initiatives would divert funding away from our nation’s veterans to generic administrative overhead services,” the White House said. “The administration will continue to ensure that Congress has information on how E-Gov initiatives directly benefit the department, veterans and taxpayers alike.”

The House version does not include similar language. But it does require VA to “request Congressional authority to transfer funding in excess of $1 million between information technology system projects.”

The two bills also differ on how much money VA should get for IT. The House would allocate $1.3 billion, while the Senate would allocate $1.25 billion. The main difference is that the House would give VA CIO Robert Howard an extra $45.3 million specifically for the regional data center consolidation.

The Senate does not specify how much money should be spent on the data center consolidation, but it does suggest Jackson, Miss., as “an ideal location for a regional center.” Outgoing Appropriations Committee chairman Thad Cochran is from Mississippi, and it is likely he put the provision in the bill, sources said.

The senior chamber also requests a number of reports about information security and VA’s IT systems reorganization.

The Senate also added a provision requiring VA to establish a digital and wireless network technology program.

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