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First batch of final spending bills passes House

Senate has until late Friday night to beat funding deadline for multiple agencies

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., conducts a news conference with members of the House Republican Conference on Wednesday.
Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., conducts a news conference with members of the House Republican Conference on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The House overwhelmingly voted to pass a six-bill, $467.5 billion final fiscal 2024 appropriations package Wednesday, a long-awaited step forward in a lengthy process that is just now beginning to come to a close nearly six months after the fiscal year began.

The vote, which required two-thirds support under suspension of the rules, was 339-85 to send the package to the Senate. Speaker Mike Johnson won a majority of votes from his conference, despite opposition from his party’s right flank, with 132 Republicans voting in favor and 83 in opposition to the measure.

The Senate now has to clear the bill ahead of the midnight Friday deadline for four of the six appropriations measures included in the combo. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said he would put the bill on the floor immediately after House passage with the goal to pass it “with time to spare” before the deadline to head off a partial government shutdown this weekend.

The package includes the Military Construction-VA measure, which is the underlying vehicle, as well as the Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science, Energy-Water, Interior-Environment and Transportation-HUD bills.

The next six-bill package for the rest of the federal government, which could top $1.2 trillion, is expected to be released as early as this weekend, sources familiar with the goal said.  

The first grouping would provide a $1.5 billion increase, or 0.3 percent, over the comparable enacted fiscal 2023 level, though even that slim boost is somewhat of an accounting trick. It technically ignores $2 billion in increased fiscal 2023 Energy Department spending offset by tapping unused Strategic Petroleum Reserve funds, for example.

And after backing out veterans health care, all other nondefense programs would be cut slightly below the previous year — something GOP leaders have been touting as a selling point within their conference.

“We only control half of one-third of the federal government, so we have to be realistic about what we are able to achieve,” Johnson, R-La., said Wednesday. “But in spite of that, we have an appropriations package that is going to cut non-defense, non-VA discretionary spending.” 

The Agriculture bill remains flat under the legislation, and the Commerce-Justice-Science and Interior-Environment bills would both see cuts of around 3 percent. Agencies ranging from EPA to the National Science Foundation to the Justice Department face hefty reductions from the prior year.

GOP conservatives still aren’t happy.

House Freedom Caucus member Rep. Chip Roy said during floor debate that Republicans did not achieve enough policy victories and that the overall spending level was too high.

“We didn’t get any of the major wins that we worked all of last year to get,” Roy, R-Texas, said.

Gun rider

Republicans got at least one win that was causing some soul-searching on the Democratic side.

That provision would overturn a 1993 law which prevents veterans deemed incompetent to manage their finances by the Department of Veterans Affairs from purchasing guns and ammunition. Under the new language, such veterans seeking to buy firearms could get a judicial hearing.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, gave an impassioned floor speech against the measure, although he didn’t urge a “no” vote. Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost, D-Fla., was the only Democrat who joined Takano in voting against the package.

“There are many good things in this bill, things that will benefit everyday Americans,” Takano said. “But… this bill comes at the expense of our most vulnerable veterans.” 

Senate appropriator Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., announced Wednesday that he would oppose the package due to the rider. 

“These are very, very mentally ill veterans —those at the highest risk of suicide,” Murphy said in a statement. “I can’t sugarcoat this: this provision — which could result in 20,000 new seriously mentally ill individuals being able to buy guns each year — will be a death sentence for many.”  

Concerns about the language don’t appear to be widespread enough among Democrats to dim the overall package’s prospects in the Senate.

Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., worried that changing current law could result in more veteran suicides. But he stopped short of vowing to oppose the legislation.

“Shutting down the government is never a good option,” he said. “So it’s important that we fund the government but we’re having discussions about that provision, specifically.”

Kelly is married to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was wounded in a 2011 mass shooting while at a constituent event. The anti-gun violence organization she founded came out against the package due to the inclusion of the rider.

Ultimately both parties appear to be finding enough things to like in the package — including nearly $13 billion in home-state earmarks.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, said during floor debate that the bill “honors our commitment to our veterans, strengthens our energy security, holds agencies accountable, supports our farmers and ranchers and makes our transportation systems safer.”

Democrats say their party successfully blocked Republicans from securing almost all of their policy priorities in the package, and limited the funding cuts.

Schumer said Wednesday the six-bill package includes “aggressive investments in American families, moms and kids, veterans, workers, and more. And we prevented any devastating cuts or poison pills pushed by the hard-right.” 

In particular, Democrats have highlighted the $7 billion in funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, in the Agriculture bill as a point of pride. 

“This legislation does not have everything either side may have wanted, but I am pleased that many of the extreme cuts and policies proposed by House Republicans were excluded,” House Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said. 

Briana Reilly and Peter Cohn contributed to this report.