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U.S. spending bill negotiations may take until weekend: Mikulski

U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) (R) walks off stage with fellow female members of the U.S. Senate after addressing the second session o
U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) (R) walks off stage with fellow female members of the U.S. Senate after addressing the second session o

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill may need a few more days to resolve differences over a $1 trillion U.S. spending bill, a top Democratic lawmaker said on Tuesday, pushing passage by Congress up against a government shutdown deadline next week.

Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski told reporters that her hope to unveil the bill funding thousands of government projects and programs on Wednesday was "a fading dream" amid the unresolved disputes.

After meeting with the top Republicans and Democrats on the Senate and House of Representatives Appropriations committees, she said that the "omnibus" spending measure may take until the weekend to complete.

That would allow little time to secure passage in the House and Senate by January 15, when current government funding runs out. Without a new spending bill or a stop-gap funding measure known as a continuing resolution, the government faces a potential repeat of the shutdown that hit federal agencies in October.

"Our first principle is that we get it done. We do not want a continuing resolution," Mikulski said.

The spending bill is needed to implement a two-year budget deal that was passed in December to ease some of the automatic "sequester" spending cuts by providing an additional $45 billion in fiscal 2014 spending on military and domestic programs.

FROM MISSILES TO HEAD START

The omnibus measure combines all 12 of the normal spending bills - each covering different program areas - and the appropriations committees are negotiating over thousands of individual budget line-items - ranging from missile systems to the Head Start pre-school programs for the poor.

While half of the spending bills are largely settled, negotiators are still trying to limit the number of policy provisions known as "riders" that are inserted into the bill.

Among these are Republican efforts to restrict abortions and prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon emissions, according to congressional aides.

Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland, said there were also unresolved issues surrounding the funding of financial regulatory efforts created by the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.

Republican efforts to deny funds to implement Obamacare health reforms are also unresolved.

"I'm against Obamacare. We're trying to undo it and kill it - defund it and stop it in its tracks," said Senator Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat on the panel who chairs the subcommittee overseeing health and labor issues, said he believed negotiators were close to a solution that could provide additional funds for the health reforms, although less than the amount requested by the Obama administration.

"Stay tuned. We're working this issue in a way that will be acceptable to both sides," Harkin said.

A Senate Democratic aide said the spending bills that are largely completed include those covering defense, military construction, the Veterans Administration, commerce, justice and science agencies, the legislative branch of government, transportation and housing.

These measures are traditionally less controversial than some others.

That leaves the more difficult bills, including labor, health and human services, the State Department and foreign operations, energy and water, the interior and the environment.

Mikulski said she believed that the bill was 90 percent completed, but it would be difficult to reach consensus on the remaining 10 percent.

"An omnibus is big. It's a trillion dollars, 134 riders and it carries the priorities of the nation," she added.

(Reporting by David Lawder and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Fred Barbash and Jan Paschal)

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