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House approves spending package to avert shutdown

House approves spending package to avert shutdown

The House on Wednesday approved a package of six spending bills, sending the legislation to the Senate days ahead of Friday’s partial government shutdown deadline.

The “minibus” — which funds a slew of programs and agencies through the end of fiscal 2024 — cleared the House in an 339-85 vote, with 207 Democrats and 132 Republicans throwing their support behind the measure.

The 1,050-page package calls for more than $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 (D-N.Y.) said the chamber will hold a vote this week so Congress can fund the relevant departments “with time to spare before Friday’s deadline.” That timeline, however, is up in the air.

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 (R-La.) 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 thornier areas such as the departments of Defense, 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.

“The next tranche is more challenging than the first tranche — not that either one of them are easy,” Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), who chairs the subcommittee that crafts IRS funding, told reporters Tuesday. “But there’s quite a bit at stake. Obviously, we’ve got national security that’s involved in this next group.”

Wednesday’s vote, nonetheless, 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, referring to the unconventional two-step continuing resolution (CR) that prevented a December omnibus bill.

Johnson and GOP leadership claimed some key wins in the package approved Wednesday, including cuts to nondefense 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.

“House Republicans secured key conservative policy victories, rejected left-wing proposals, and imposed sharp cuts to agencies and programs critical to President Biden’s agenda,” Johnson said in a statement over the weekend.

That messaging, however, is not buying Johnson any goodwill from House conservatives, who have argued that the spending package amounts to one-half of an omnibus, slammed it for excluding some controversial policy riders they requested, and highlighted its price tag.

Hard-liners have also criticized GOP leadership for bringing the package to the floor under suspension of the rules, a fast-track process that requires two-thirds support for passage and eliminates the need to first pass a procedural rule — which conservatives likely would have tanked. It is the same gambit former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) utilized in September to avoid a shutdown, which ultimately led to his ouster.

“There’s very little, very little in the way of policy wins,” Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), the chair of the House Freedom Caucus, told reporters Tuesday. “When we have one House, we ought to get half of our wins, shouldn’t we?”

But despite their frustrations, conservatives say they are not ready to trigger a vote on Johnson’s ouster, recognizing the difficult situation the Speaker finds himself in steering a slim GOP majority in a divided Washington.

“I’m not gonna characterize any of that,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) said Wednesday when asked if he is frustrated with Johnson’s leadership. “I’m just gonna talk about the policy, I don’t like the policy.”

Democrats, meanwhile, also touted wins, lauding the exclusion of some conservative policy riders from the bill. At a press conference on Wednesday, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, told reporters that the party was able to reject the vast majority of partisan additions that Republicans pursued in their initial proposals.

“There’s nowhere near the 22 percent [in] cuts that the House Republicans had threatened, and you should know that, overall in the 12 bills, there [were] 560 riders,” DeLauro said. “In this set of six, there [were] 262. We rid ourselves of 98 percent of those riders.”

GOP negotiators have argued that intraparty strife over spending helped strengthen Democrats’ hands in spending talks, particularly as Republican leadership has been forced to rely on support from the other side to pass the funding bills amid staunch conservative opposition.

But that doesn’t mean all Democrats are happy with the funding package.

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.

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.

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.

“It’s unacceptable this provision was pushed by Republicans. Democrats shouldn’t have acquiesced,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a senior appropriator, said in a statement on Wednesday announcing his plans to vote against the bill later this week.

Still, the bills being considered this week are seen as the easier lift of the two batches that Congress will try to pass this month for fiscal 2024. The next tranche will cover money for the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Education, the Internal Revenue Service, and a host of others.

Discussing some of the sticking points on his bill, which also funds general government and financial services, Womack again pointed to areas such as election security grants, the FBI and IRS as hurdles in talks.

“There [is] some language that we wanted in these bills that we’re still negotiating,” Womack said. “So, there’s some unresolved issues for sure, and we have to put those to bed, and I’m hopeful that over the next couple of days we’ll have success in doing that once and for all.”

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