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Senate clears stopgap bill, setting up final spending talks

Short-term bill heads to Biden's desk ahead of Friday deadline

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., is seen in the Dirksen building on Thursday.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., is seen in the Dirksen building on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Lawmakers averted a partial government shutdown after the Senate on Thursday cleared a two-step continuing resolution to allow final appropriations work to wrap up in the coming weeks.

The Senate voted 77-13 to send the short-term spending measure to President Joe Biden’s desk. The House earlier Thursday passed the bill on a 320-99 vote under the suspension of the rules, which requires a two-thirds majority of lawmakers present and voting.

If Congress hadn’t acted, spending authority for agencies covered by a subset of the 12 annual appropriations bills would have lapsed Saturday.

The vote will set up a first tranche of full-year spending bills that the House is expected to vote on next Wednesday: the Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science, Energy-Water, Interior-Environment, Military Construction-VA and Transportation-HUD measures. Enactment of the bills will fund those agencies through Sept. 30.

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., said Thursday that legislative text of that package would be released over the weekend. Text is expected to be released Sunday, which would set up a Wednesday vote in the House under the chamber’s 72-hour rule to give lawmakers sufficient time to consider the package.  

The final contents of the bills are not yet clear, though it appears that the bills will not feature the big conservative policy wins House Republicans were pushing for. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Thursday that the package would not include “unacceptable poison-pill riders that we said would not fly.”

Still, Republicans are expected to claim credit for wins in the packages even if they aren’t the most high-profile, culture war-related items that received most of the attention over the summer when the House was debating the bills.

[Hill leaders announce deal to unlock final spending bills]

“If you’re expecting a lot of home runs and grand slams here, I admit you’ll be disappointed. But we will be able to secure a number of policy victories,” Johnson told members on a conference call Friday, according to a source familiar with his comments. “These bills will be littered with singles and doubles that we should be proud of, especially in our small majority.”

House Interior-Environment Appropriations Chair Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said there were “not a lot” of riders in his bill, as many that House Republicans pushed for got dropped.

“The Democrats were never going to agree to a lot of those things,” he said. “But I think we got some good provisions. So did the Democrats, frankly. That’s kind of the nature of a compromise.”

How close is ‘close’?

The second batch of bills will be considered by the March 22 deadline to avoid a partial government shutdown, lawmakers have said. That package includes the Defense, Financial Services, Legislative Branch, Homeland Security, Labor-HHS-Education and State-Foreign Operations measures. 

Sources are split on how close lawmakers are to reaching a deal on the second package. One person close to the talks said they were “close” and could be done “well in advance” of March 22. 

Others were less optimistic about how near they actually are to finalizing that package, which includes the most controversial measures. Lawmakers are continuing to negotiate open issues, sources said. 

House Financial Services Appropriations Chairman Steve Womack, R-Ark., said lawmakers are still negotiating his bill. He said while there is optimism about the first package of bills set to hit the floor next week, the trickier bills, including his, are in the second batch due March 22.   

“That’s like an eternity here, right?” he said.

Democrats did “very, very well” in their fight against Republican riders in the first package, House Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said Thursday, with no “poison pills.” She said some in the second group are still being worked out.

For example, Homeland Security appropriations remain unfinished. Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Chair Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., said that Republicans had not yet dropped their demands for controversial policy riders in his bill, which funds immigration and border enforcement agencies.

“Republicans are going to have to give up their riders, this is a budget bill, this is not a policy bill,” he said. “These riders can’t pass, they know they can’t pass. It’s going to be up to Republicans, whether they want to shut down the government or not.”

Immigration policy became a flash point during House floor debate on the stopgap measure Thursday. Members of the hard-line Freedom Caucus and others repeatedly brought up the recent murder of 22-year-old Laken Riley in Athens, Ga., by a Venezuelan man who crossed into the U.S. illegally, and was released temporarily into the country.

Critics of the appropriations process also brought up continuation of current spending levels while U.S. debt continues to rise rapidly.

“All we seem to offer is low energy and low [testosterone] in the face of these mounting challenges,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., said.

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., argued that forcing a shutdown would damage national security including nuclear weapons programs at the Energy Department, and would only hurt constituents in GOP as well as Democratic districts.

“Government shutdowns, and I have lived through three, never work. They do more harm than good,” said Fleischmann, chairman of the House Energy-Water Appropriations Subcommittee. “I do respect my friends who are very passionate today in opposing this. But the reality is the American people want us to do our work, and to do our work well. We’ve got to keep the government open.”

In the end, Johnson received a “majority of the majority” on the stopgap vote: 113 Republicans voted for it, with 97 against.

Senate votes

Hours later across the Capitol, senators made relatively short work of the package.

However, Schumer, D-N.Y., had to navigate the usual demands from a few lawmakers seeking to extract concessions in exchange for dropping objections to swift passage.

One “hold” on the measure came from Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., who sought a vote to extend current funding levels through Sept. 30, which would have triggered across-the-board cuts under last year’s debt limit law. His “motion to commit” the bill to committee to make those changes was rejected, 14-76.

A similar proposal from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, but without the Israel aid, was also rejected by a large majority of the chamber, 12-77. A separate motion from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to send the bill to committee for addition of House-passed border security legislation, was defeated, 32-58.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., won a vote on his amendment to bar Congress from setting up programs allowing the Federal Reserve to purchase and sell municipal debt, similar to what was authorized during the pandemic. Senators voted it down, 37-53.

Separately, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., wanted a stand-alone vote next week on a measure to reauthorize and expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which expires later this year.

Hawley wants to expand the law’s coverage to more states, such as victims of the first atomic bomb test in Trinity, N.M., and to his own constituents in St. Louis, where uranium used in the Manhattan Project contaminated the surrounding area. Under the agreement, Schumer said a vote on Hawley’s bill would be held no later than March 8.

Pell Grants

The six-page continuing resolution is mostly very simple: It extends the deadline to March 8 for four of the bills that were operating with a deadline of this Friday. For the rest of the bills that already had a March 8 deadline, the measure would extend that date to March 22.

Then there are the five pages of surprise new language added Wednesday in response to a problem that arose just a day earlier.

It includes a provision that would block the Education Department’s Tuesday decision that Republicans say could have expanded Pell Grant eligibility for roughly 280,000 college students in the upcoming academic year. Democrats support the change as well because Pell Grants weren’t intended to benefit students in families with slightly higher incomes, and if left in place would cause major strains on discretionary programs in future years.

The CR fix is estimated to save $3.4 billion over a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office, with the money put back into the Pell Grant program starting in fiscal 2025 to alleviate a looming Pell shortfall that appropriators would have otherwise had to make up. 

However, it doesn’t have universal support, as some lawmakers are worried the provision would go too far and cause students who are currently eligible for Pell to lose their assistance.

“I am very disappointed that 100,000 students are not going to be eligible for Pell Grants, and that’s something I hope to address as soon as possible,” Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said Thursday. He said he would try to address the issue in final spending bills.

House Education and the Workforce ranking member Bobby Scott also expressed his opposition to the Pell provision, even though he voted for the CR on Thursday. 

“At a time when college has become increasingly unaffordable, we should be doing all we can to help students succeed,” Scott, D-Va., said in a statement. “I am extremely disappointed in this outcome, and I will continue to fight for expanded access to the Pell Grant in the future.”

Peter Cohn, Olivia Bridges and Caitlin Reilly contributed to this report.

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