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Senate lurches toward conclusion on massive spending package

Consent needed to speed up process as lawmakers seek to get out of town ahead of winter storm

Sen. John Cornyn said Tuesday he believed his colleagues were coalescing behind a plan to get amendment votes in exchange for speeding up the process.
Sen. John Cornyn said Tuesday he believed his colleagues were coalescing behind a plan to get amendment votes in exchange for speeding up the process. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate took its first step Tuesday toward passing a nearly $1.7 trillion omnibus spending package needed before Christmas Eve to avert a partial government shutdown.

Senators voted 70-25 to adopt the motion to proceed to a shell bill for the long-awaited measure, a 4,155-page behemoth that encompasses the dozen annual spending bills for every federal agency, plus supplemental aid for the war in Ukraine and natural disaster victims.

It also includes an extensive set of unrelated policies such as horse-racing industry rules and a TikTok ban on government-issued devices.

The bill’s overall price tag, which awaits an official score from the Congressional Budget Office, includes roughly $85 billion in emergency supplemental spending on top of the roughly $1.65 trillion in regular, overdue appropriations for the fiscal year that began in October.

Leaders are hoping all 100 senators will agree to speed up the normal legislative clock because under regular order, final passage wouldn’t occur until Friday, when the current continuing resolution that keeps the government’s lights on expires. But some conservative Republicans declined to say Tuesday whether they would consent to a time agreement.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Tuesday afternoon he believed his colleagues were coalescing behind a plan to get amendment votes in exchange for speeding up the process. The winter storm that is approaching D.C. later this week is “accelerating peoples’ interest” in getting out of town, Cornyn said.

“Between now and the end of the week, the watchwords for the Senate will be speed and cooperation,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said in floor remarks Tuesday morning. “I hope nobody here will stand in the way from funding the government ASAP.”

Priorities in and out

Missing from the omnibus was one of Schumer’s key priorities: legislation that would close a $3 billion shortfall in the World Trade Center Health Program, which pays for medical bills and monitoring of those injured in the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York City. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell “blocked a lot of things, things I care about, like 9/11 health,” Schumer said in his weekly press conference. “He just said ‘no’ at the end.”

The Biden administration urged “swift passage” of the omnibus measure in a statement that highlighted its priorities, including health research funding for cancer and other diseases, aid to Ukraine, assistance for veterans, funds to help communities recover from natural disasters and prevent crime and investments in child care, education and more.

The final numbers include $858 billion in defense-related spending, a nearly 10 percent, or $76 billion, increase over the previous fiscal year, which Republicans celebrated. That figure includes a 4.6 percent pay raise for military servicemembers and Pentagon civilian employees.

Both parties praised the inclusion of nearly $119 billion for veterans medical care, a 22 percent increase over fiscal 2022, not counting a $5 billion infusion for the toxic exposure benefits law enacted over the summer.

The remainder of the regular nondefense spending total was a moving target, however; each party was using different numbers to describe it more favorably to their side.

Senate Republicans claimed to have held nondefense funds outside of VA medical care to $668 billion, a below-inflation increase of 5.5 percent. House Democrats, however, in their own tally added about $13 billion to the topline, which would give nondefense programs excluding veterans health a 7.6 percent boost, which is above the current inflation rate.

The extra $13 billion touted by House Democrats is about half of what they were seeking in bipartisan talks earlier this month. It appears to include funding newly designated as emergency spending to free up room for other priorities.

For example, the final bill moves about $3.6 billion out of the “base” budget for low-income rental assistance administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and includes it in the disaster aid title. Similarly, an extra $2.5 billion for low-income heating assistance previously in the base budget for the Department of Health and Services is also now designated an emergency.

Conservative angst

A handful of hard-core conservatives railed against the omnibus at a press conference Tuesday, saying lawmakers don’t have time to read the bill in a process they feel is rushed by design to facilitate runaway spending. Most of them declined to commit to pursuing a time agreement to speed up the process. 

“This is why we’re $31 trillion in debt, because of stuff like this,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said. “This is wrong. It’s got to stop.”

Lee was joined by GOP Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Rick Scott of Florida and Mike Braun of Indiana. Braun described a core group of “six or seven” conservatives opposed to more spending and the process of appropriating through late, massive omnibus packages, but he predicted that, ultimately, 30 to 35 Republicans will vote against the measure. 

Paul and Lee complained that conservatives get blamed for holding up spending bills if they don’t consent to time agreements when leadership knows that it takes a week to move a bill through the Senate under regular order and could begin the process sooner. 

“I find it offensive,” Lee said, saying that congressional and appropriations leaders “deliberately contrived this shutdown threat” and released the bill at the last possible moment. “It’s way too soon to be asking us how quickly we’re going to jump to expedite their process for which they excluded every single one of us and 330 million Americans.” 

Possible amendments 

If a time agreement were to come together, it would involve giving conservatives amendment votes they want to use to illustrate their concerns about the omnibus package. 

Paul said he plans to raise a procedural objection through a budget point of order that claims the omnibus violates pay-as-you-go rules requiring new spending to be offset. He also wants an amendment that would require a two-thirds vote to override pay-as-you-go rules, as the omnibus does for spending that Democrats approved in their party-line pandemic aid and climate, tax and health laws. 

Johnson said he is pushing an amendment to strip earmarks from the bill, which total roughly $15 billion. According to Braun, Lee wants a vote on extending the continuing resolution into early next year, although a vote to do that was defeated soundly last week on the current continuing resolution.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said GOP amendment requests grew Tuesday as lawmakers processed the bill and were still open midafternoon but that the proposals are in a “finite universe” of ideas that could probably be granted votes in exchange for speeding up the legislative process. 

A bipartisan amendment to offer a path to permanent residency for certain Afghan evacuees may also be on the table. Thousands of Afghans were evacuated last year following the U.S. withdrawal and have been living with a temporary immigration status that does not lead to citizenship.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., the lead sponsor on bipartisan standalone legislation to allow some of these evacuees to apply for green cards, said if an amendment is filed, “today would be the day to do it” and that he is “actively talking” with the bill’s co-sponsors on the best path forward.

“It’d be pretty hard for this to get in, but I’m waiting to hear the outcome of the Republican caucus lunch,” Coons said.

If an agreement on amendments is secured, the Senate could take a final vote on the omnibus as early as Wednesday night, several senators said. 

“What’s happening now is there are parts of the country where the weather may complicate people’s travel plans. And so we’ll see if that’s enough of an incentive,” Thune said. “But I think there’s a path to get this done tomorrow.”

While GOP leaders have identified Thursday as a “drop dead date” for completing the omnibus, Thune said they would stay until Friday morning if their members declined a time agreement and forced them to do so. 

“We’ll do what we have to do,” he said. “I’m prepared to be here as long as is necessary.”

House politics

House passage could come even more swiftly because the Democratic majority in that chamber can ram through legislation on a party-line vote and individual lawmakers have little power to slow the process down.

But the outcome is sure to be close, since Democrats hold only a two-vote advantage over Republicans and GOP leadership is whipping against the bill. And unlike in March with the $1.5 trillion fiscal 2022 omnibus, House leaders won’t be able to “divide the question” to allow members to vote against portions they don’t like, since the vote would be on the Senate-passed bill.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is facing a difficult battle to win the speakership in the next Congress, issued a warning Tuesday to senators considering voting for the package.

“When I’m Speaker, their bills will be dead on arrival in the House if this nearly $2T monstrosity is allowed to move forward over our objections and the will of the American people,” the California Republican said on Twitter.

Cornyn, who is planning to vote for the omnibus, said he thinks McCarthy’s threat is just “words spoken during the heat of passion.” 

“Hopefully cooler heads will prevail,” he said.

Senate leaders of both parties are backing the bill, with each side claiming wins and seemingly talking past one another in a public relations spin game.

“Compared to where the negotiators started, we’ve transferred huge sums of money away from Democrats’ spending wish list toward our national defense and armed forces, but without allowing the overall cost of the package to go any higher,” McConnell said.

And Schumer touted victories that he said Democrats would readily embrace.

“This package represents an aggressive investment in American families, American workers and America’s national defense,” he said. “It’ll give our troops a raise, make healthcare more affordable for millions, and it fulfills the promise Democrats made to defend democracy at home and abroad.”

Suzanne Monyak contributed to this report.

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