WASHINGTON - As Washington empties out for the holidays, a final budget fight will play out in the nearly empty Capitol building as congressional staffers parcel out more than US$1 trillion to fund everything from cybersecurity to student loans.
Unlike the knock-down budget battles that paralysed government for much of the year, this debate will largely take place within what one lobbyist calls a "cone of silence" with Republicans and Democrats aiming to minimise discord as they race to set spending levels for thousands of individual government programs.
It's a chance for Congress to demonstrate that it is capable of doing its job after two years in which lawmakers let the government run on automatic pilot when they weren't shutting it down or imposing indiscriminate spending cuts.
It has also touched off a lobbying blitz as defence contractors, hospitals, day-care providers and thousands of other groups push to maximise funding for the programs that affect them most directly.
Business groups will push to fund job-training programs, while advocates for the elderly will fight for increased Alzheimer's disease research and teachers' unions will argue to restore money that has been cut from education.
There may be only so much they can do to influence the process as lawmakers retreat into their chambers to write the complex spending legislation.
"They absolutely know what our priorities are," said Beth Felder, a lobbyist for Johns Hopkins University, the largest academic recipient of US research money. "At this point I don't think their phones need to be ringing off the hook."
For some, it's a chance to restore funding that fell victim to across-the-board "sequester" cuts that took effect in March. For others, it's a chance to launch new initiatives that have been sidelined for years as Democrats and Republicans have opted to renew old spending plans through temporary "continuing resolutions," rather than write new ones.
At Johns Hopkins, programs funded through the appropriations measures cover some hospital patients' medical bills and help students pay for their education. Researchers build satellites and develop missile-defence systems for the government and rely on federal money to fund medical research projects.
Federal spending is far and away the most important topic for lobbyists and their clients who hire them. Lobbying firms reported working on behalf of 3,076 clients this year for budget and spending issues, nearly twice as much as any other issue, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Collectively, those lobbyists can claim a partial victory. The budget deal that passed the House of Representatives and the Senate this week gives lawmakers authority to spend US$45 billion more than would have otherwise been available.