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Friday, April 19, 2024

Congressional leaders sell $1.2 trillion spending package to members before 2024 government shutdown deadline on federal budget

WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders from both parties looked to put a positive light on a $1.2 trillion spending package that lawmakers are working to approve before funding expires at midnight Friday for a host of key government agencies.

Text of the legislation had not been released as of Wednesday afternoon, but lawmakers and aides were expecting an official unveiling early Thursday. The package, which is expected to pass, will wrap up Congress’ work on spending bills for the year – nearly six months after the fiscal year began.

This year’s dozen spending bills were packed into two packages. The first one cleared Congress two weeks ago just hours before a shutdown deadline for the agencies funded through the bills.

Now Congress is focused on the second, larger package, which includes about $886 billion for defense, about a 3% increase from last year’s levels. The bill also funds the Departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Labor and others, with non-defense spending expected to be relatively flat compared to the prior year.

Leaders worked to sell the package to members. In a closed-door meeting with GOP lawmakers in the morning, Speaker Mike Johnson described a few of the policy changes that House Republicans were able to secure in the latest negotiations. Those included a prohibition on funding for a United Nations relief program for Palestinian refugees that extends through March 2025. He also noted the bill funds 8,000 additional detention beds for noncitizens awaiting their immigration proceedings or removal from the country.

“The Homeland (Security) piece was the most difficult to negotiate because the two parties have a wide chasm between them,” Johnson said at the GOP leadership’s weekly press conference. “I think the final product is something that we were able to achieve a lot of key provisions in, and wins, and it moved in a direction that we want even with our tiny, historically small majority.”

The House is expected to vote on the second package on Friday, giving lawmakers more than a day to examine the legislation, but in doing so, leadership is bypassing a House rule that calls for giving lawmakers 72 hours to review major legislation before having to vote on it.

That is riling some House Republicans, but following the rule would surely invite some lapse in federal funding, even if just for a day or so, for several key federal agencies.

Once the bill passes the House, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. said he will put it on the Senate floor.

“Even with bipartisanship, it’s going to be a tight squeeze to get this funding package before the weekend deadline,” Schumer said.

Democrats celebrated staving off the vast majority of policy mandates Republicans had sought to include in the spending bills, such as restricting access to the abortion pill mifepristone or banning access to gender-affirming health care.

“We’re exactly in the position that we knew we were going to end up,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar D-Calif. “We knew that House Democrats, Senate Democrats, Senate Republicans and the White House weren’t going to tolerate any significant harmful cuts and crazy policy riders.”

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.

“We have had to stick to some difficult toplines and fight off literally hundreds of Republican poison pills, not to mention some really harsh, almost unthinkable, cuts proposed by House Republicans,” said Sen. Patty Murray, the Democratic chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “But now we have a good, bipartisan bill that protects absolutely essential investments in the American people.”

McCarthy 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 debt ceiling deal also expressed misgivings about the latest package.

Johnson is expected to bring the bill up for a vote through a streamlined process that requires two-thirds support for the bill to pass. The earlier spending package passed by a vote of 339-85 with Republicans providing all but two of the no votes.

“If this bill sits out for two weeks, it will get pilloried like a pinata,” said Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas. “So they want to jam it through over the next 48 hours.”

“I hope there will be some modest wins. Unfortunately, I don’t expect that we will get much in the way of significant policy wins based on past history and based on our unwillingness to do use any kind of leverage to force policy wins, meaning a willingness to walk away and say no,” said Rep. Bob Good, R-Va.

One of the changes Johnson touted for members was prohibiting – through March 2025 – funding for the United Nations 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 that Hamas conducted in Israel on Oc. 7.

The U.S. is the biggest donor to the agency, providing it with about $364 million in 2022 and $371 million in 2023. After Israel made its allegations, the Biden administration paused funding for the agency. Republicans seek a more lasting prohibition.

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 a quarter of the 2.3 million residents are starving.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said in a recent speech on the Senate floor that any individual who participated in the Oct. 7 attack must be held responsible. But not innocent civilians.

“Punish the 14. Don’t punish 2 million innocent Gazans,” Van Hollen said.

But House Republicans are describing the agency as “part of the problem” that Israel is confronting. About three dozen wrote Appropriations Committee members saying, “in light of UNRWA’s record of troublesome allegations and disturbing revelations since Hamas’s October 7 terrorist attack on Israel, we believe that going forward no further U.S. taxpayer funds can be given to the agency.”

Johnson also touted to colleagues a 6% cut to foreign aid programs and only allowing the American flag to be flown over U.S. diplomatic facilities as wins, according to a Republican congressional aid not authorized to speak publicly. Under the Biden administration, U.S. embassies have been invited to fly the pride flag or light up with rainbow colors in support of the LGBTQ community.

Johnson said that after the spending package passes, the House would next turn its attention to a bill that focuses on aiding Ukraine and Israel, though lawmakers are scheduled to be away from Washington for the next two weeks. The Senate has already approved a $95.3 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, but Johnson has declined to bring that up for a vote.

Copyright © 2024 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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