The Senate on Wednesday kicked off consideration of its long-stalled spending “minibus” to provide fiscal 2024 funding for transportation, housing, agriculture, military construction and veterans programs with amendment votes.
By late afternoon the Senate adopted 27 amendments, including two touching on culture war issues that politically vulnerable Democrats joined with Republicans to support. Provisions now part of the three-bill spending minibus include an amendment offered by Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., that would preserve gun rights for veterans deemed mentally unfit to manage their benefits. Opponents warn the provision will lead to an increase in suicides.
Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, who opened the day with floor remarks, said voting is expected to continue through the rest of the week and into next. He praised the bipartisan effort to bring the package to the floor after senators worked for much of the last month to reach an agreement that would expedite consideration of the measure on the floor.
“This will be the Senate working as it should — both parties cooperating, debating amendments working through differences without grinding the legislative process to a halt,” Schumer said. “Democrats promised our Republican colleagues that their voices would be heard and we’re making good on that process.”
The spending package combines the fiscal 2024 Military Construction-VA, Agriculture, and Transportation-HUD appropriations bills. The House-passed Military Construction-VA bill is being used as the legislative vehicle for the spending package.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., likewise praised the progress in floor remarks, calling it an “important step in the right direction,” though he noted that government funding will run out in 23 days.
“We have a responsibility to keep the lights on and avoid the disastrous effects of shutdown,” he said. “We also need to make serious headway toward the full-year funding process that the nation actually deserves.”
The minibus comprises the first three of the Senate’s 12 fiscal 2024 appropriations to go to the floor. The House passed four annual spending bills before ousting Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., delaying further consideration of the chamber’s spending bills. The House elected Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., as speaker on Wednesday, allowing it to resume legislative work for the first time since Oct. 3.
Guns and masks
Several Democrats joined Republicans in the 53-45 vote to adopt Kennedy’s amendment that would overturn the requirement that the Department of Veterans Affairs send a beneficiary’s name to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System whenever a financial professional is appointed to help that person manage VA benefits.
Kennedy’s amendment would prohibit the VA secretary from transmitting a veteran’s personal information to the FBI unless a relevant judicial authority rules that the beneficiary is a danger to themselves or others.
Gun-control advocates, including Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., have warned that enactment of the amendment would lead to a surge in suicides among veterans who own firearms.
Democratic Sens. Jon Tester of Montana, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Jacky Rosen of Nevada, along with independent Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Angus King of Maine, who caucus with the Democrats, voted to adopt the amendment. All have terms expiring in 2025, though Manchin and Sinema have not said whether they will run again.
In a second culture war vote, the Senate voted 59-38 to adopt an amendment offered by Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, that would ban the Transportation Department from using fiscal 2024 funds to enforce a federal mask mandate. Ten Democratic senators, as well as Sinema, voted to adopt the provision.
Seven of the 10 Democrats, including Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, have terms expiring in 2025.
The chamber knocked out more than half of the 40 amendments due for consideration before noon with a voice vote to adopt 25 of them, including to fund telehealth for veterans, recruit commercial pilots from diverse communities, ban seafood from China in school lunches and shift money to support animal friendly housing for victims of domestic violence and their pets.
The en bloc vote included an amendment by Rosen that would require the Veterans Affairs Department to spend $5.2 billion to increase telehealth capacity in rural communities. Rosen is a longtime advocate on the issue. The funding, which would not be offset by cuts in other programs, must come from the budget of the Veterans Health Administration, according to the amendment text.
The chamber voted 47-51 to reject an amendment offered by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., opposed by low-income housing and energy efficiency advocates. The amendment would bar funds from being spent to finalize or implement higher energy efficiency standards for new construction of housing backed by the Housing and Urban Development Department.
An amendment from Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., that would trigger automatic stopgap spending bills was rejected, 56-42, in a vote that required 60 for adoption. Lankford’s amendment would provide for continuing resolutions at two-week intervals if there’s a lapse in appropriations. It would also prevent the House and Senate from leaving town if they don’t pass all 12 spending bills by the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year.
The 27 amendments the Senate adopted through Wednesday afternoon also included:
- An amendment offered by Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., that would require a report from the VA on the cost and schedule of the veterans electronic health record system. The program is aimed at digitizing medical records and integrating VA and Defense Department health information systems, but it has been plagued by delays, cost overruns and technical snafus.
- An amendment offered by Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C,. that would require the VA secretary to conduct a study of mortality and toxic exposure among veterans who were deployed to Kosovo in 1999.
- An amendment offered by Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., that would provide $10 million of the bill’s funds for mammography services, without an offsetting cut in funds.
- An amendment offered by Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., to provide $3 million for an emergency pet shelter and housing assistance grant program established by the 2018 farm bill, offset by the amount of fiscal 2022 money rescinded from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture research and extension activities.
- An amendment offered by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., that would provide $29 million for the Federal Aviation Administration’s aeronautical information management program, which includes federal notices to air missions (NOTAM) enhancements.
David Jordan contributed to this report.