Government shutdown averted as Senate passes $459 billion funding bill

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The Senate voted Friday to prevent a partial government shutdown that was set to begin in mere hours by approving legislation to fund roughly 30 percent of the federal government for the next six months, sending it to President Biden to sign into law.

The legislation — which passed by a 75 to 22 vote — devotes $459 billion to the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration, for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The House passed the measure on Wednesday.

But a larger, trickier deadline for the rest of the government — including the Defense, State and Homeland Security departments — looms just two weeks away, and negotiators are still far apart on spending amounts and policy provisions necessary to fund those agencies.

“Because both sides cooperated today, we’ve taken a major step toward our goal of fully funding the government,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor. “Today’s bipartisan agreement gives us momentum and space to finish the remaining appropriations bills by March 22. Of course, it’s going to take both sides working together to keep that momentum alive.”

That legislation, though, threatens to get wrapped into testier talks around U.S. aid to Ukraine and Israel and security at the U.S.-Mexico border. President Biden in his State of the Union address Thursday forcefully pressed the case for sending tens of billions of dollars in additional arms and resources to Ukraine to fight off Russian invaders. He wants to send billions more to Israel to defeat Hamas terrorists and provide humanitarian aid for displaced Palestinian civilians, and tied those messages together on spending in his address with his pro-democracy foreign policy approach.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) and Republicans say they want to pass border and immigration legislation before sending aid to allies, and some of those policy pushes, lawmakers say, have clouded the government funding picture. Members of the staunchly conservative House Freedom Caucus have repeatedly argued that Congress should not fund agencies that they believe contribute to the influx of migrants at the Mexican border, ease access to abortions, or support LGBTQ and diversity, equity and inclusion measures.

Last-minute delay tactics from hard line Senate Republicans briefly led lawmakers to worry the government could slide into a short partial shutdown — even though the funding bill had broad bipartisan support.

Some Republicans wanted the bills to include harsh new restrictions on immigration and to beef up U.S.-Mexico border security. Another wanted an amendment to exclude undocumented immigrants from the apportionment of electoral votes and members of the House. Yet another sought to eliminate earmarks from the funding bill. With enough opposition, the group — which included Sens. Mike Lee (Utah), Rand Paul (Ky.), Eric Schmitt (Mo.), J.D. Vance (Ohio) and Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) — could have pushed the debate past the midnight deadline, sparking a brief shutdown.

GOP appropriations leaders pleaded with the group to drop its protest.

“I would urge my colleagues to stop playing with fire here,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the vice chair of the Appropriations Committee, said on the Senate floor. “ … It would be irresponsible for us not to clear these bills and do the fundamental jobs that we have of funding government. What is more important?”

Congress’s March 22 deadline, though, is already casting a shadow after Friday’s vote. Lawmakers may have to punt on the Homeland Security Department bill and pass a temporary funding measure for the agency because the delicate negotiations have been so slow-going, according to three sources familiar with the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (Tex.), the top Democratic negotiator on the measure in the House, told The Washington Post on Thursday that lawmakers were “hoping not” to have to pull the bill out of the larger funding package.

“This is always amongst the toughest,” Sen. Chris Murphy (Conn.), the top Democratic homeland security negotiation in the Senate, said Friday.

A partial shutdown of the remaining agencies would be quite disruptive. If funds for 70 percent of the government lapse, military servicemembers, Border Patrol and airport security agents would temporarily go unpaid, Internal Revenue Service employees would be furloughed in the busiest period of tax season, and important economic resources for small businesses would be sidelined.

This government funding cycle was supposed to be far less complicated after a pair of bipartisan deals.

Last spring, Biden and then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) agreed to suspend the nation’s debt ceiling in exchange for limiting federal spending in 2024. Some House Republicans detested that deal, which they hoped would generate deeper spending cuts. Disagreements over spending ultimately led a band of rebels to oust McCarthy from the speakership in October.

But after McCarthy was booted, his replacement, Johnson, stuck to the deal, and in January he made another agreement with Schumer on a top-line discretionary spending amount for the year: $1.7 trillion.

Friday’s bill covers a portion of that amount. Expensive social safety net programs such as Social Security and Medicare aren’t included in that total because they are not subject to annual approval by Congress.

Some Republicans were unhappy with that $1.7 trillion total and hoped to attach policy provisions to the legislation as a consolation for not cutting spending more. Those “riders” — so named because the policies “ride along” on often-unrelated legislation — included limits on which items some food stamp recipients could purchase, a crackdown on the availability of abortion medication and a ban on regulations on menthol-flavored cigarettes.

Republicans were able to secure some spending cuts in the bill, which Johnson has claimed as wins. The legislation cuts the EPA’s budget by nearly 10 percent — almost $1 billion — including a massive funding decrease to the agency’s contaminated site management program, called Superfund. Democrats say they can stomach those cuts because the Superfund is also receiving broad new revenue from newly restored taxes on corporate polluters. Factoring in that money, the EPA’s budget would fall by only 4 percent.

GOP negotiators also managed to cut the FBI’s resources by 6 percent. The agency has become a major Republican punching bag since special counsel Jack Smith indicted former president Donald Trump in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and his alleged theft of national security secrets.

But there, too, Democrats say the cuts look worse than they truly are. The legislation nearly eliminates the FBI’s construction budget, but the agency recently won hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new campus in Alabama.

Most of the controversial policy provisions did not make it into the final legislation, angering conservatives. Littering appropriations bills with culture-war poison pills — as House Republicans had done in versions of spending legislation last year — would have doomed its chances of passage. Vulnerable House Republicans would have shied away from certain measures and Democrats in the House and Senate would have opposed it.

But many of those controversial provisions are part of the negotiations in this newest round of spending bills.

The House’s Homeland Security legislation would require illegal migrants released on parole wear GPS monitoring systems until their case is resolved. The Defense Department measure limits abortion access for military servicemembers and their spouses. The bill for the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services would prohibit federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

“I made it very clear from Day One and throughout the negotiations,” Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the top Democratic negotiator said Thursday. “We will not accept any, not one, not tiny, not little not big abortion rider on these bills.”

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