Congress rushes to approve final package of spending bills before shutdown deadline

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Lawmakers are racing on Friday to pass the final spending package needed for the current budget year, a long overdue action that will set funding for federal agencies and push any threats of a government shutdown to the fall. With spending set to expire for several key federal agencies at midnight on Friday, the House and Senate are expected to take up to spare a USD 1.2 trillion measure that combines six annual spending bills into one package. More than 70 per cent of the money would go to defence.

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., is bringing the bill up under a streamlined process that requires two-thirds support for approval. “It will pass. We’re whipping the bill and I expect a good number,” Johnson said, referring to how leadership rallies support for a bill. While lawmakers could miss the midnight deadline for funding the government – action in the Senate could take time – the practical impact would be minimal.

With most federal workers off duty over the weekend, and many government services funded through earlier legislation, the “shutdown” would mostly pass without incident unless matters dragged into Monday. Lawmakers broke up this fiscal year’s spending bills into two parts as House Republicans revolted against what has become an annual practice of asking them to vote for one massive, complex bill with little time to review it or face a shutdown.

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It’s taken lawmakers six months into the current fiscal year to get near the finish line, the process slowed by conservatives who pushed for more policy mandates and steeper spending cuts than a Democratic-led Senate or White House would consider. The impasse required several short-term, stopgap spending bills to keep agencies funded as negotiations continued. The first package of full-year spending bills, which funded the departments of Veterans Affairs, Agriculture and Interior, among others, cleared Congress two weeks ago with just hours to spare before funding expired for those agencies.

Now, lawmakers are considering the second package under a similar scenario. The House will vote first. Party leaders are pointing to a defense spending increase of more than 3 per cent as one reason Republicans should vote for it. The bill funds a 5.2 per cent pay increase for service members. “At at time when the world’s on fire, more than ever, we need to make sure that we are properly funding our nation’s defense and supporting our troops,” said House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La.

The 1,012-page bill also funds the departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Labor and others. Non-defense spending will be relatively flat compared with the prior year, though some, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, are taking a hit, and many agencies will not see their budgets keep up with inflation. When combining the two packages, discretionary spending for the budget year will come to about USD 1.66 trillion. That does not include programs such as Social Security and Medicare, or financing the country’s rising debt.

Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., said he expects more Republicans to vote against the second spending package than the first one. That’s because Johnson is not adhering to a House rule calling for lawmakers to have 72 hours to review a bill before voting on it. But abiding by the 72-hour rule would lead to a lapse in government funding for many key agencies. Some lawmakers are also opposed to some of the projects that members were able to secure for their congressional districts in the bills, often referred to as earmarks.

Meanwhile, more Democrats may also vote against the second spending bill because of provisions related to Israel and border policy. House Republicans were able to secure a provision that prohibits funding through March 2025 for the UN Relief and Works Agency, which is the main supplier of food, water and shelter to civilians in Gaza. Republicans are insisting on cutting off funding to the agency after Israel alleged that a dozen employees of the agency were involved in the attack Hamas conducted in Israel on October 7.

But the prohibition does concern some lawmakers because many relief agencies say there is no way to replace its ability to deliver the humanitarian assistance that the United States and others are trying to send to Gaza, where one-quarter of the 2.3 million residents are starving. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the lead Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said the provision has caused some problems with Democratic members, but she also pointed out that Democrats were able to secure more humanitarian assistance overall. It will increase by about USD 336 million from the prior year’s levels.

“I think we’re going to get there,” DeLauro said of Friday’s vote. To win over support from Republicans, Johnson has also touted some of the spending increases secured for about 8,000 more detention beds for migrants awaiting their immigration proceedings or removal from the country. That’s about a 24 per cent increase from current levels. Also, GOP leadership highlighted more money to hire about 2,000 Border Patrol agents.

Democrats, meanwhile, are boasting of a USD 1 billion increase for Head Start programmes and new child care centres for military families. They also played up a USD 120 million increase in funding for cancer research and a USD 100 million increase for Alzheimer’s research. “We defeated outlandish cuts that would have been a gut punch for American families and our economy,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

The spending in the bill largely tracks with an agreement that former Speaker Kevin McCarthy worked out with the White House in May 2023, which restricted spending for two years and suspended the debt ceiling into January 2025 so the federal government could continue paying its bills. Shalanda Young, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, told lawmakers Thursday that last year’s agreement, which became the Fiscal Responsibility Act, will save the federal government about USD 1 trillion over the coming decade.

Members of both parties expressed frustration with how long the process has taken and that the end result was what so many had predicted. They warned all along that Republicans would not get the vast majority of policy mandates they were seeking or cut spending further than what McCarthy and the White House had agreed upon last year. “We stayed within the caps that Kevin McCarthy negotiated. That was going to be the reality all along,” said Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb.

“People were living in a dream world thinking, ‘well, we’re going to something different than what McCarthy had an agreement with the president on.'” McCarthy, R-Calif., was ousted from the speaker’s role a few months after securing the debt ceiling deal. Eight Republicans ended up joining with Democrats in removing McCarthy as speaker. And some of those unhappy with that deal are also unhappy with the spending package. “I don’t know if they have the votes to pass this. We’ll see,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla. “I’m working to get the votes to kill it.”