Sunday, July 14, 2024

Senate passes $1.2 trillion spending bill, averting government shutdown

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The bill, which passed by a 74-24 vote, funds about three-quarters of the federal government for the next six months, while also raising military pay, eliminating U.S. funding for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees and bolstering security at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Passage came after a 12:01 a.m. deadline, meaning some federal funding technically expired, but the White House budget office said it would not declare a shutdown because the vote was imminent, and Biden will sign the bill later Saturday.

The House had passed the measure, the product of an agreement between Biden, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), on Friday morning.

But the vote there succeeded on a jarringly slim margin for Johnson and the House GOP leadership and ignited a rebellion among far-right extremists in the lower chamber, testing the speaker’s tenuous grip on his conference.

That foreshadowed unrest in the Senate later in the day and night. A group of Republican senators demanded amendment votes to the legislation on politically thorny issues, including immigration, Iran sanctions and government spending. But altering the bill in any way would have assured a shutdown; the legislation would have had to be approved again by the House, which had already adjourned for a recess slated to go longer than two weeks.

That kept the Senate in session into early Saturday morning as Schumer and the Republicans haggled over a deal. An agreement emerged just as the deadline arrived, allowing weary lawmakers to finally vote.

“I’m going to be brief, because we want to move quickly on to votes,” Schumer said shortly before the Senate launched into a series of more than a dozen votes that began around midnight. “It’s been a very long and difficult day, but we have just reached an agreement to finish funding the government.”

Even if the funding interruption had lasted into Saturday or Sunday, the effects would probably have been muted: Many federal workers at unfunded agencies would be off for the weekend, anyway.

“I’m opposed to shutdowns, but of the kinds of shutdowns that we could have one that is only happening on the weekend is about the best version it,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) told The Washington Post. “Where this hurts is in defense.”

Negotiators took so long working out the final details of the package, and the House took so long putting it to a vote after the deal was cinched, that the Senate had scant time - by its slow standards - to pass the legislation before midnight.

Republican Sens. Ted Budd (N.C.), Mike Lee (Utah), Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) demanded amendment votes before they would agree to yield time and allow a vote to proceed.

That sparked not just policy disputes in the upper chamber, but also personal ones. Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the top Republican appropriator, had to return to her home state Saturday morning for her mother’s funeral. Senate leadership attempted to eliminate amendment proposals, or hasten the way they were processed, as a courtesy to her so she could vote before leaving Washington.

The Senate can act fast when it has unanimous consent, so even just the 12 hours the House left the upper chamber to deal with the bill could have been enough - if all 100 members had agreed. They did not, until minutes before the deadline.

“This is way past stupid,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who is close with Collins and a key interlocutor with Schumer. “This is into mean.”

The bill represented the end of a months-long saga to fund the federal government for fiscal year 2024, which began on Oct. 1, 2023. Congress passed several temporary spending extensions last fall and earlier this year before finally approving full-year spending for about a quarter of the government two weeks ago. Each spending bill was supported by more Democrats than Republicans in the House.

Wrapping the last three-quarters up proved the most difficult part. Republicans at the negotiating table with White House officials successfully turned provisions to fund the Department of Homeland Security into a broader fight about immigration policy.

The legislation would increase funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to support about 42,000 beds in detention facilities, and it would fund 22,000 Border Patrol agents. It would also cut U.S. contributions by 20 percent to nongovernmental organizations that provide services for new arrivals to the country. Lawmakers who want to restrict immigration argue that the nonprofit groups incentivize illegal crossings.

Republicans were also able to prohibit federal funding for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) for the next 12 months. Israel has accused some of the agency’s employees of involvement in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel that killed some 1,200 people and saw hundreds more taken as hostages to the Gaza Strip by the militant group Hamas. A U.S. intelligence assessment has reportedly verified some of Israel’s claims about UNRWA.

The bill also includes a 6 percent cut to foreign aid programs, already a minuscule slice of federal spending, and a Republican change to the law that prohibits nonofficial U.S. flags from flying atop American embassies. GOP lawmakers hope to use that provision, a slightly narrower version of which had previously been in place, to prevent Biden-nominated officials from displaying Pride flags at official locations at U.S. diplomatic outposts.

Democrats eliminated other policy provisions to limit abortion access and restrict the rights of LGBTQ Americans.

Certain Democratic priorities also saw significant funding boosts, including $1 billion more for the early-education program Head Start and $1 billion for climate resilience funding at the Defense Department. The legislation also provides an additional 12,000 special immigrant visas for Afghans who assisted the U.S. military and are attempting to escape the Taliban government.

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