AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Congress returns to work next week and both chambers will have a little more than a week to pass an appropriations bill to keep the government open. A bipartisan budget agreement in December helped reduce the chance of a shutdown, but as NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, there's still plenty left to bicker about.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: This holiday season has been no fun for staffers on the appropriations committees. It meant coming to work in a nearly deserted building every weekend, Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve and staying well into the night during yesterday's snow storm. Jim Dyer(ph) remembers the pain. He spent two and a half decades giving up holidays and weekends to help write spending bills under the gun.
JIM DYER: To the detriment of friends and family and it made me very cranky and a hell of a lot less charming than I am now.
CHANG: Dyer was a staffer on the House Appropriations Committee until 2004 and he says this year's team is running an especially fast sprint. A budget agreement didn't come until December so appropriators didn't know what bottom line they had to work with until just a few weeks before the January 15 deadline.
DYER: You're talking about writing a bill of a trillion plus dollars that governs every federal agency for the year and you're talking about producing a piece of legislation in an environment that is not very conducive to conciliation and compromise.
CHANG: And compromise will be the only way to get things done. The budget agreement was only a general outline. Now, appropriators have to figure out exactly how much money to spend on agencies and policies many members of Congress downright hate, like the Affordable Care Act.
Yet, Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution believes deals will happen this month because Republicans are still haunted by last October's government shutdown.
SARAH BINDER: Politically, my sense is Republicans have decided that their party took such a bad beating for being blamed for the shutdown that they don't want to go back there again and so they will find a way to compromise.
CHANG: The way Congress is really supposed to decide spending is through 12 individual appropriations bills. That hasn't happened in almost a decade. Right now, the committees are drawing up an omnibus bill, 12 bills rolled up into one. It isn't ideal because some items don't get as much scrutiny as others, but Binder says it's still way better than as stopgap measure where no new spending decisions are made.
BINDER: Minimum standards become maximum standards, right? That the least we can get done becomes the most we can get done.
CHANG: But is this good start a sign of greater bipartisanship in the months to come?
STAN COLLENDER: No. Let's not go too far here.
CHANG: Stan Collender has closely watched budget fights for years.
COLLENDER: Maybe it's a real measure of how far we've come and how bad things are that an omnibus bill, which would've been considered a disaster a decade ago or a generation ago by appropriators, is now being hailed a cardinal achievement of this Congress.
CHANG: Of course, Collender says, let's wait until January 15 before we celebrate even that. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.