US House approves over USD 450 billion spending package to avert shutdown

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As the concerns of a shutdown continue to loom, the US House of Representatives approved a package of six spending bills on Wednesday (local time) sending the legislation to the Senate days ahead of the deadline, The Hill reported. The “minibus” — which funds a slew of programs and agencies through the end of fiscal 2024 — cleared the House in 339-85 vote, with 207 Democrats and 132 Republicans throwing their support behind the measure. The 1,050-page package calls for more than USD 450 billion in funding for the departments of Veterans Affairs, agriculture, interior, transportation, housing and urban development, justice, commerce and energy.

The legislation now heads to the Senate, where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the chamber will hold a vote this week so Congress can fund the relevant departments “with time to spare before Friday’s deadline.” The successful vote means the House is halfway done with the appropriations process for fiscal 2024, an undertaking that has fractured the GOP conference, thrown Speaker Mike Johnson into hot water with his right flank, and required four short-term extensions to arrive at the current juncture. The tougher spending fight, however, lies ahead.

The remaining six government funding bills — which fund tougher areas such as the Departments of Defence, Homeland Security and Health and human services — are due on March 22, and top appropriators say those measures will be more difficult to get over the finish line, according to The Hill. “The next tranche is more challenging than the first tranche — not that either one of them are easy,” Representative Steve Womack, who chairs the subcommittee that crafts IRS funding said on Tuesday. “But there’s quite a bit at stake. Obviously, we’ve got national security that’s involved in this next group.”

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It marks a win for Johnson, who has sought to break what he dubbed the “omnibus fever” in Washington and move away from the sprawling, typically end-of-year spending measures that lump together all 12 appropriations bills. House passage of the package also puts Congress one step closer to averting a partial shutdown, which the Speaker has pushed to avoid. “In a way, we’re sort of victimized by the tradition that’s been developed in Congress and we’re working really hard to bend that backwards, right? And so you can’t turn an aircraft carrier overnight. So what we did was we broke the omnibus fever, we put it into the laddered CR approach,” Johnson said Wednesday.

Johnson and GOP leadership claimed some key wins in the package approved Wednesday, including cuts to non-defense funds and funding for efforts to fight fentanyl. They also include cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, among other agencies, in addition to provisions that prevent the sale of oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to China and prohibit the Justice Department from targeting or investigating parents who exercise their right to free speech at local school board meetings.

Negotiators on both sides have discussed the difficulty in divvying up dollars for programs within the tight constraints imposed as part of a previous spending caps deal brokered by President Biden and McCarthy last year, as reported by The Hill. Some Democrats have also voiced frustration with a concession on a GOP-backed guns-related provision aimed at allowing veterans determined unable to manage their benefits to be able to purchase guns.

On the other hand, the Republicans say the proposal is important to keep veterans who need help managing their money from losing their gun rights. But Democrats have sounded alarms about the impact the measure could have on veterans’ suicide rates, as well as the potential for those deemed “mentally incompetent” to have firearms.