Omnibus Drops as House Speeds Toward Vote

Lawmakers could vote as early as Thursday on $1.3 trillion package

Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, shown here in 2017, huddled with President Donald Trump on Wednesday to sell the $1.3 trillion spending package. (Alex Wong/Getty Images file photo)
Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, shown here in 2017, huddled with President Donald Trump on Wednesday to sell the $1.3 trillion spending package. (Alex Wong/Getty Images file photo)
Posted March 21, 2018 at 9:45pm

Lawmakers on Wednesday unveiled a $1.3 trillion omnibus package that would erase years of budget cuts and fund some of Republicans’ and Democrats’ top priorities.

The fiscal 2018 measure delivers on two of President Donald Trump’s biggest goals: a massive increase in military spending and new funds for border security and immigration enforcement. The omnibus would provide $700 billion for the Pentagon in all, or 10 percent more than the prior year, and close to $1.6 billion to bolster enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico border, including construction of 33 miles of new fencing — though aides said funds for a “concrete wall” were not included.

Trump offered his support for the omnibus Wednesday afternoon after discussing the package with Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, shooting down reports that he was unhappy with the amount of border wall money in the legislation.

Democrats touted increased funding for many of their domestic priorities, like child care development block grants, student loan forgiveness and anti-opioid efforts. They also staved off Trump’s push for new money to house an additional 10,000 undocumented immigrants in detention facilities and to hire 850 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

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Congress has until midnight Friday to pass the 2,232-page bill before a current stopgap funding law expires. First, the House is aiming to vote on the omnibus Thursday or early Friday, followed by Senate action that could drag into the weekend if any senators choose to slow down the process.

Sen. Rand Paul, for example, has held up spending bills in the past because of his objections to the price tag, and he did not rule out doing so again. “We’ll have to wait and see what happens and what’s in the bill,” the Kentucky Republican said Wednesday. “But I can tell you right now it’s a no good, rotten, terrible way to run the government.”

Senate appropriators said they would likely seek a time agreement to be able to pass the legislation by Thursday night. But that would hinge on the House passing the omnibus Thursday, a prospect that became less certain as Wednesday evening arrived and the final legislative text had yet to be posted.

Congressional leaders removed one procedural hurdle in the Senate by deciding to attach the omnibus as an amendment to an unrelated measure that has already passed both chambers but has not yet gone to the president’s desk. Using the “message between the chambers” technique eliminates the need for at least one time-consuming cloture process in the Senate on simply bringing the measure to the floor. The Senate would need cloture to move to final passage, however, if a senator decides to withhold consent for a quick vote.

Rushed process

The sprawling legislation does not include an extension of protections for certain young undocumented immigrants, or “Dreamers.” It also did not include language sought by Democrats that would safeguard special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, but an influx of money was devoted to stepping up election security ahead of the 2018 midterms.

Democratic and Republican leaders praised the emerging deal Wednesday morning, but some Democratic members said they were disappointed by the lack of a fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which Trump is attempting to roll back.

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“It’s pretty difficult to keep hearing, ‘We’re going to take this up, we’re going to take this up,’ and we never do,” Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan said Wednesday before the omnibus was released.

Rank-and-file lawmakers also complained about the lack of transparency and the rushed process, as they prepared to vote on a behemoth spending bill with just a day or two to read it.

“This is a Great Dane-sized whiz down the leg of every taxpayer in America,” said Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana. “We don’t even know what’s in the bill. … It wasn’t done in front of God or country or the American taxpayer.”

The measure also does not include direct funding for the Gateway Program, a $30 billion series of rail and transit projects in New York and New Jersey, but new federal funds in the omnibus could still flow to Gateway through Amtrak and certain grant programs. The Gateway project was one of the final sticking points in spending talks, as top Republicans and Democrats who favor the project clashed with White House officials opposed to earmarking federal dollars for Gateway.

A gun bill sponsored by Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn to bolster local reporting that feeds into a federal database used for background checks for firearm purchases was included in the omnibus package.

So was a technical fix to the “grain glitch,” a flaw in the new GOP tax law that was putting private grain dealers at a disadvantage to agricultural cooperatives. In exchange for that correction sought by Republican tax writers and farm-state lawmakers, Democrats secured an expanded tax credit for low-income housing.

Roughly $10 billion is also devoted to infrastructure programs like road and transit projects, rural broadband and more.

Bipartisan spending blowout

The omnibus was facilitated by last month’s bipartisan budget deal that lifted defense and nondefense spending caps by nearly $300 billion in total over two years, raising discretionary spending limits well beyond even the initial, pre-“sequester” levels laid out in the 2011 budget control law.

The $1.21 trillion “base” discretionary total for fiscal 2018 is the highest since fiscal 2010, when Democrats controLled Washington, in inflation-adjusted terms. That figure excludes emergency spending for natural disasters and other funding excluded from spending caps, including Overseas Contingency Operations designated-accounts for the Defense and State departments.

With OCO war-related funds factored in, the $1.29 trillion allocated for fiscal 2018 is the highest inflation-adjusted funding level since fiscal 2011, a year before the budget-cutting law first took effect.

The House Rules Committee is expected to meet Wednesday to report the bill to the floor for debate and a vote. The House is likely to once again ignore its “three-day rule” and vote on the omnibus by Thursday or early Friday.