What’s an “Omnibus” bill?

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The end-of-year "Omnibus" Spending Bill is by now a Congressional holiday tradition — as is the "will they or won't they?" nail-biter finish that comes within hours of a stated deadline and sometimes pushes through multiple short-term extensions…and delayed holiday plans.

Technically, the Omnibus is one big bill that "carries" lots of smaller bills.

And it really does work like a "bus." This year's spending bill will carry the very important cargo of several smaller spending bills that did not make it out of the appropriations process on their own. These bills end up riding together in one big bill at the end of the year. But they may not be the only ones on board.

Policy Riders (or, "poison pills" if you don't like them): The big debate occurring now is whether additional non-appropriations measures will "ride" along with the spending bills. And the standby list is long. Some of those reported to have been in a first draft (which was rejected by House Democrats) include:

  • Provisions to disapprove Obama's EPA regulations — would garner Republican votes but lose some Democrats and bring a veto threat, so it might be negotiated away in order to get another priority, like:
  • Repealing the ban on exports of crude oil — a bill passed earlier in the year to this effect, with bipartisan support.
  • Limiting entry for Syrian refugees — would lose some Democrats, who instead favor:
  • Bipartisan proposal to limit the visa waiver program, which allows citizens of some countries to enter the U.S. without a visa. (President Obama supports some form of this provision and has already begun tightening restrictions on the visa waiver program.)
  • A McConnell proposal to eliminate caps campaign spending by political parties in coordination with candidates (opposed by the Freedom Caucus)

And those are just some of the ones that have made it to the press. CNN reports: "Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the top Democrat in the Senate, was upbeat on Tuesday about progress in the talks, noting that the number of riders in the bill had shrunk from 250 to 100. But he also warned that any one of those riders could cause the bill to fail."

The 'bus is supposed to arrive by December 11, when current spending expires, but Speaker Paul Ryan said Congress might not have a deal by then. If not, we would likely see a short-term extension to allow time for negotiations to continue. GOP leaders are showing no desire for another shutdown fight, while President Obama is not ruling it out, if he is sent a bill with policy riders he opposes.

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