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First fiscal 2024 appropriations package heads to Biden’s desk

Biden's signature would avert partial shutdown; next batch of funding bills likely to be trickier

Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., is halfway to the finish line on this year's overdue spending bills.
Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., is halfway to the finish line on this year's overdue spending bills. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate cleared a six-bill, $468.7 billion spending measure Friday ahead of a midnight deadline to prevent a partial government shutdown for several agencies funded in the bill.

The 75-22 vote sends the measure to President Joe Biden for his signature. The president was at his home in Wilmington, Del., where he was expected to sign it late Friday or early Saturday.

The package includes the fiscal 2024 Military-Construction-VA measure, which is the underlying vehicle, and the Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science, Energy-Water, Interior-Environment and Transportation-HUD bills. 

The measure would provide a $2.6 billion, or 0.6 percent, increase over the comparable enacted fiscal 2023 level, though the two parties dispute some of the funding assumptions made by each side.

For instance, Democrats believe an extra $1.2 billion in Superfund tax receipts, available to be spent in fiscal 2024 for the first time, should count toward the EPA total — reducing the overall cut to that agency that Republicans have touted.

That extra Superfund money, which doesn’t show up in the bill’s official cost estimate, brings the total package to $468.7 billion. Even then, Republicans can still plausibly say the bill would reduce nondefense spending, outside of veterans health care, for the first time in years. 

Most of the partisan policy provisions sought by House Republicans fell out in the end. But one big one — ending a decades-old Department of Veterans Affairs policy barring some beneficiaries from being able to own guns — remained in the end. 

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., telegraphed in advance that he’d vote against the package due to the inclusion of the gun-related VA policy rider, which led two House Democrats to oppose the package as well. The provision would overturn a 1993 law that prevents veterans deemed incompetent to manage their finances from purchasing guns and ammunition. 

“I just can’t, in good conscience, vote to add a new gun rider to the appropriations process,” said Murphy, who has been one of Capitol Hill’s most passionate gun control advocates since his home state was rocked by the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012. 

The bill faced the most opposition from conservatives in both chambers, who blasted it for spending too much money.

Conservatives have called out the measure for including more than 6,600 individual home-state earmarks totaling $12.7 billion. Eight other Senate Republicans signed onto a resolution that Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., introduced Thursday that expresses opposition to earmarks. 

“Pork-barrel spending sounds bad, and smells worse,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said during debate Friday. “Pork-barrel spending is the original sin of Congress, that big government types can’t rid themselves of, can’t rinse themselves clean of.” 

The bill hit a few process snags following Wednesday afternoon’s House passage. Senate Republicans sought amendment votes, but Democrats would not agree to votes on three immigration-related amendments and one that would block the EPA’s pending tailpipe emissions rule. 

[First batch of final spending bills passes House]

Enough Republicans joined with Democrats to bring debate on the bill to a close in a 63-35 vote midday Friday, clearing the way toward eventual passage. 

“This first package is evidence that we can get things done, when everyone is focused on what can actually help folks back at home and what can actually pass in a divided government,” Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., said during debate Friday.

Before passage, Democrats relented and allowed a vote on one of the three immigration-related amendments in dispute earlier.

The chamber voted to reject the amendment from Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., that would have barred the Census Bureau from counting noncitizens and undocumented immigrants when apportioning House seats and Electoral College votes. The vote was 45-51.

A Scott motion to refer the bill to the Appropriations Committee with instructions to send it back to the floor without earmarks was rejected, 32-64.

Other GOP amendments also went down to defeat, and the chamber was able to clear the bill before dinnertime.

Murphy was the lone Senate Democrat to vote against the package; he was joined by 21 Republicans.

‘Really hard decisions’

Appropriators are negotiating the second six-bill package, which is set to top $1.2 trillion in spending and feature the two largest bills, the Defense and Labor-HHS-Education measures. The other four bills in that package are the Financial Services, Legislative Branch, Homeland Security and State-Foreign Operations measures.

That wrapup package is expected to be released in the next nine days, most likely March 17, ahead of the March 22 deadline for the second tranche of bills, sources familiar with the talks say. Murray said Thursday that while the parties are working together on the next package, “a number of really hard decisions” remain. 

“We just have to work through them one at a time, and to show, as we did last time to the House, we have the votes for this,” she said. “Let’s just make these decisions, and let’s get these votes done.” 

The Homeland Security measure continues to be the most difficult for appropriators to work out, negotiators say.

“We’re still working through a lot of pretty terrible Republican policy, but we’re slowly making progress,” Murphy, the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security appropriations panel, said earlier this week.

One DHS-related issue that cropped up in recent days contributed to the daylong delay Friday in getting the first package through the Senate.

Alaska’s senators sought assurances that funding for a new polar icebreaker to navigate Arctic waters would be included in the final package, which includes U.S. Coast Guard accounts.

Money to buy a commercially available icebreaker — needed because of the long lead time to procure newly-built icebreakers to better complete with Russia’s fleet — was included in both chamber’s initial versions of the DHS bill.

But Alaska GOP Sens Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan learned recently that it could be on the chopping block in final negotiations as appropriators have to make tough funding decisions ahead of that bill’s March 22 deadline. They complained of the same thing happening last year and warned colleagues not to remove the funding “in the dark of night” again.

“In this increasingly dangerous world, the United States’ national security interests in the Arctic have never been more critical,” Sullivan said in a statement. “Russia has 55 ice breakers and they are building more. The United States has two and one is broken.”

Ultimately they didn’t stand in the way of passage of the spending bill, which Murkowski praised on the floor while also expressing concern about the icebreaker funding issue.

“We were able to in a tough budget environment put together a bipartisan bill. It’s a bipartisan bill that protects our land and people,” said Murkowski, the top Republican on the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee. “It enables infrastructure projects, provides clean and safe drinking water. It helps communities provide vital basic services that I think many take for granted.”

Murkowski leads all lawmakers with $363 million worth of earmarks in the package, CQ Roll Call found.

Next cycle beckons

The unusually late finale is coming nearly six months after the start of the fiscal year, and coincides with the rollout of Biden’s budget for the new fiscal year that’s due Monday. Under the terms of last year’s debt limit suspension and spending caps law, fiscal 2025 appropriations are slated to rise just 1 percent above the topline totals agreed to for the current budget cycle. 

Some defense hawks and industry stakeholders are already raising concerns about the tight budget environment affecting the Pentagon next year. In an interview with CNBC this week, RTX Corp. CEO Greg Hayes called the expected 1 percent boost outlined in the budget “just a starting point.”

“The problem with a 1 percent increase is when you have 4 percent inflation, what you’re talking about is a 3 percent decrease in defense spending,” said Hayes, head of an aerospace and defense giant that derives nearly half its annual sales from the U.S. government, according to RTX financial reports. “So I’m assuming that, you know, the president’s budget will be met with some skepticism when it gets to the Hill.”

Without offsetting cuts within defense accounts or a change in the debt limit law, however, any increase above the $895.2 billion defense limit for fiscal 2025 would be subject to across-the-board cuts. 

On the nondefense side, there are also plenty of hurdles: an earlier side agreement to add an extra $69 billion in funding on top of the regular $710.7 billion cap was cut nearly in half in talks between Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., earlier this year.

That means congressional leaders would need to come up with an extra $32 billion in offsets or other accounting maneuvers to maintain even that slim 1 percent boost to nondefense programs next year.

Sandhya Raman, Herb Jackson, Ryan Kelly, David Lerman and Peter Cohn contributed to this report.

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