US Congress passes spending bills hours before shutdown deadline

Meanwhile, lawmakers are negotiating a second package of six bills

capitol-rep-afp Representational image. The US Capitol in Washington, DC | AFP

The Senate on Friday approved a USD 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. The White House said he would do so Saturday, and agencies will not shut down and may continue their normal operations".

Meanwhile, lawmakers are negotiating a second package of six bills, including defence, 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-N.Y.

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 laboured 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.

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 USD 1.66 trillion for the full budget year ending September 30.

Republicans were able to keep non-defence spending relatively flat compared to the previous year. Supporters say that's progress in an era when annual federal deficits exceeding USD 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 USD 7 billion for what is known as the WIC programme. That's a USD 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.

The bill also includes more than 6,600 projects requested by individual lawmakers with a price tag of about USD 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.

But an effort by Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla, to strip out the projects mustered only 32 votes with 64 against.

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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