Senate clears $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill
Vote caps months of arduous negotiations, nearly halfway into fiscal year
A massive spending bill for the fiscal year that began over five months ago is headed to President Joe Biden's desk after the Senate cleared it for his signature late Thursday, putting an end to a frenzied stretch of negotiations in both chambers this week.
On a 68-31 vote, the Senate passed the 2,700-page, $1.5 trillion omnibus containing all 12 fiscal 2022 spending bills, $13.6 billion in supplemental appropriations to address the crisis in Ukraine and a lengthy list of unrelated measures fortunate enough to ride on the must-pass vehicle.
As Republicans sought, the omnibus allows for almost equal increases in defense and nondefense spending from last year’s levels, with a $46 billion or 6.7 percent boost for nondefense programs and a $42 billion, 5.6 percent increase in defense accounts. Democrats had sought roughly double that amount for nondefense programs.
Leaders in both parties spent hours Thursday negotiating with GOP senators, trying to reach an agreement on amendments they were seeking that would allow for a unanimous consent agreement to proceed to the bill quickly.
After resolving final concern from Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, over how fast the process was moving — in part by agreeing to quick passage of a fisheries bill Sullivan authored — Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer announced an amendments deal around 8 p.m.
As expected and designed, the three GOP amendments leaders agreed to hold votes on did not pass:
- An amendment from Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy to add $2.5 billion for hurricane relief was rejected, 35-64, under a 60-vote threshold.
- An amendment from Mike Lee, R-Utah, to overturn President Joe Biden's vaccine-or-test mandates for private employers, health care workers, federal employees and military servicemembers was rejected, 49-50.
- An amendment from Mike Braun, R-Ind., to strip home-state earmarks out of the measure was rejected, 35-64.
The House passed the mammoth omnibus with strong bipartisan support late Wednesday.
[House passes overdue $1.5 trillion omnibus appropriations bill]
The chamber also passed a four-day continuing resolution that would extend stopgap funding through March 15. The Senate cleared that very short-term bill, which is intended to provide time for the omnibus to be enrolled and sent to Biden to sign, by voice vote late Thursday.
Earmarks, vaccines, disaster aid
Braun said he knew his amendment to eliminate earmarks would not be adopted, but he wanted to register his disapproval with resuming the practice at a time of trillion-dollar-plus federal deficits.
"If you had balanced budgets and were … paying for it, that's a different story,” Braun said of earmarks. “But when you're doing it when you're going broke, that's two bad things."
Republicans also knew they wouldn't be able to attach an amendment aimed at undercutting the Biden administration on vaccine mandates. Lee's amendment on the same issue last month, as part of a stopgap funding measure, was defeated on a vote of 46-47, with seven senators absent.
Kennedy similarly predicted an unsuccessful vote on his disaster aid amendment, co-sponsored by fellow Louisiana Republican Bill Cassidy.
It would have added $2.5 billion to the package, mostly housing and economic development funds to help their state recover from last fall's Hurricane Ida, as well as Hurricanes Laura and Delta from 2020. Of the total, $500 million would go toward repairing damages incurred at ports during those storms as well as Hurricane Zeta and Tropical Storm Cristobal in late 2020 and early 2021.
As drafted, the amendment would not add to the deficit, since it would be offset with a slice of $81 billion parked in the Treasury as a result of a spectrum auction the Federal Communications Commission concluded earlier this year.
That auction helped push January's federal budget surplus to $119 billion — the largest monthly surplus in nearly three years — which has helped drive the total deficit in the first five months of this fiscal year down to $476 billion, or less than half what it was a year ago.
Kennedy said his pleas for aid were rejected by the White House, which declined to include any disaster relief in its supplemental funding request for Ukraine and the COVID-19 response. As a result, Kennedy said, Democrats on Capitol Hill won't support more money for Louisiana or other affected states.
He said an administration official in explaining their reluctance to request more aid cited $600 million appropriated for Ida relief last fall as well as an extra $2.8 billion state budget windfall, about half of which comes from state aid appropriated in last year's pandemic aid package.
That official — "who will have to remain anonymous because I don't want to get her fired," Kennedy said — told him that "after you spend the $600 million and you take a look at your surplus, we'll talk more. But I've explained that we've had five hurricanes."
It wasn't just Democrats reluctant to appropriate more for disasters, however; Kennedy said "it's a little lukewarm" on the Republican side, as well. That played out in Thursday night's vote.
Senate leaders still had some work to do to assuage Sullivan's concerns after locking in agreements for amendment votes.
Earlier in the day, Sullivan said he wanted time to read the bill. And according to senators in both parties, Sullivan had a hold on the omnibus related to the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization, commonly referred to by its acronym, VAWA, that leadership attached to the spending package.
It was not immediately clear what Sullivan’s exact issue was with renewing the lapsed 1994 law that authorizes funding for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, as he’s supported versions introduced in the past.
And when asked about the alleged VAWA hold, a Sullivan spokesperson said only, “As he said before and has told other senators, his focus has been on the ability to do the appropriate due diligence before voting on the bill.”
In a brief interview Thursday afternoon, Sullivan said he was “not ready at all” to consent to a time agreement but he wasn’t seeking any amendments. He did not mention VAWA. “I just want more time to read the bill,” Sullivan said.
In the end, it appears that an unrelated pledge helped convince Sullivan to back down. During wrapup at the end of the evening, Schumer asked unanimous consent to pass Sullivan's bill to establish an "American Fisheries Advisory Committee" within the Commerce Department. There was no objection, and the measure passed.
The bipartisan panel would be responsible for evaluating seafood industry needs and selecting projects to receive grant funding out of tariffs collected on imported fishery products. The Senate Commerce Committee approved the bill, which has bipartisan support, in December.
Sullivan ultimately voted against the omnibus. In a statement, Sullivan said he "could not support such a bill on which my staff and I were unable to do our appropriate and necessary due diligence." But he said there were a number of aspects of the bill he supported, including parts of the VAWA compromise that he authored.
Sullivan's statement didn't mention the fisheries bill, which his aides didn't comment on either.
Despite various GOP demands, it was relatively smooth sailing overall for the huge package. Earlier in the day, Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said removal from the package of $15.6 billion in new pandemic aid made it easier for more Republicans to support the measure.
That funding “created a lot of heartburn for our members, particularly given the fact that it wasn't … fully offset,” he said.
[Pandemic aid pulled as House aims to wrap up omnibus]
House Democratic leaders were forced to strip the pandemic aid from the omnibus after weathering a rebellion from members who objected to how the money would be offset. The bill had called for clawing back unspent funds from previous relief laws, including $7 billion in aid to state governments. Some Democrats said their states would have been unfairly targeted for cuts.
House leaders said they would take up separate legislation next week for the pandemic aid — without cutting the $7 billion from state governments. But the additional deficit spending assumed in that bill could sink its chances in the evenly divided Senate.
Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.