UNITED STATES NEWS

Congress passes first package of spending bills just hours before shutdown deadline for key agencies

Mar 8, 2024, 5:00 PM | Updated: 5:58 pm

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., walks outside the chamber as he tries to assemble eno...

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., walks outside the chamber as he tries to assemble enough lawmakers to begin the final steps of completing a partial government funding bill, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, March 8, 2024. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate on Friday approved a $460 billion package of spending bills in time to meet a midnight deadline for avoiding a shutdown of many key federal agencies, a vote that gets lawmakers about halfway home in wrapping up their appropriations work for the 2024 budget year.

The measure contains six annual spending bills and has already passed the House. It now goes to President Joe Biden to be signed into law. Meanwhile, lawmakers are negotiating a second package of six bills, including defense, in an effort to have all federal agencies fully funded by a March 22 deadline.

“To folks who worry that divided government means nothing ever gets done, this bipartisan package says otherwise,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY.

He said the bill’s passage would allow for the hiring of more air traffic controllers and rail safety inspectors, give federal firefighters a raise and boost support for homeless veterans, among other things.

The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 75-22. The chamber labored to get to a final vote just hours before the midnight deadline for the first set of appropriations bills. Lawmakers sought votes on several amendments and wanted to have their say on the bill and other priorities during debate on the floor. It was unclear midday if senators would be able to avert a short shutdown, though eventual passage was never really in doubt.

“I would urge my colleagues to stop playing with fire here,” said Sen. Susan Collins, the top-ranking Republican member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “It would be irresponsible for us not to clear these bills and do the fundamental job that we have of funding government. What is more important?”

The votes this week come more than five months into the current fiscal year after congressional leaders relied on a series of stopgap bills to keep federal agencies funded for a few more weeks or months at a time while they struggled to reach agreement on full-year spending.

In the end, total discretionary spending set by Congress is expected to come in at about $1.66 trillion for the full budget year ending Sept. 30.

Republicans were able to keep non-defense spending relatively flat compared to the previous year. Supporters say that’s progress in an era when annual federal deficits exceeding $1 trillion have become the norm. But many Republican lawmakers were seeking much steeper cuts and more policy victories.

The House Freedom Caucus, which contains dozens of the GOP’s most conservative members, urged Republicans to vote against the first spending package and the second one still being negotiated.

Democrats staved off most of the policy riders that Republicans sought to include in the package. For example, they beat back an effort to block new rules that expand access to the abortion pill mifepristone. They were also able to fully fund a nutrition program for low-income women, infants and children, providing about $7 billion for what is known as the WIC program. That’s a $1 billion increase from the previous year.

Republicans were able to achieve some policy wins, however. One provision, for example, will prevent the sale of oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to China. Another policy mandate prohibits the Justice Department from investigating parents who exercise free speech at local school board meetings.

Another provision strengthens gun rights for certain veterans, though opponents of the move said it could make it easier for those with very serious mental health conditions like dementia to obtain a firearm.

”This isn’t the package I would have written on my own,” said Sen. Patty Murray, the Democratic chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “But I am proud that we have protected absolutely vital funding that the American people rely on in their daily lives.”

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said one problem he sees with the bill is that there was too much compromise, and that led to too much spending.

“A lot of people don’t understand this. They think there is no cooperation in Washington and the opposite is true. There is compromise every day on every spending bill,” Paul said.

“It’s compromise between big-government Democrats and big-government Republicans,” he added.

Still, with a divided Congress and a Democratic-led White House, any bill that doesn’t have buy-in from members of both political parties stands no chance of passage.

The bill also includes more than 6,600 projects requested by individual lawmakers with a price tag of about $12.7 billion. The projects attracted criticism from some Republican members, though members from both parties broadly participated in requesting them on behalf of their states and congressional districts. Paul called the spending “sort of the grease that eases in billions and trillions of other dollars, because you get people to buy into the total package by giving them a little bit of pork for their town, a little bit of pork for their donors.”

But an effort by Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla, to strip out the projects mustered only 32 votes with 64 against. Murray said Scott’s effort would overrule “all the hard work, all the input we asked everyone to provide us about projects that would help their constituents.”

Even though lawmakers find themselves passing spending bills five months into the fiscal year, Republicans are framing the process as improved nonetheless because they broke the cycle of passing all the spending bills in one massive package that lawmakers have little time to study before being asked to vote on it or risk a government shutdown. Still, others said that breaking up funding into two chunks of legislation war hardly a breakthrough.

The first package now making its way to Biden’s desk covers the departments of Justice, Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Interior and Transportation, among others.

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Congress passes first package of spending bills just hours before shutdown deadline for key agencies