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Scramble to finish spending bill text is on as details start trickling out

Both parties are touting ‘wins’ in the massive package ahead of official unveiling

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., leaves the House Republican Conference meeting in the Capitol on Wednesday.
Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., leaves the House Republican Conference meeting in the Capitol on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., and his top lieutenants on Wednesday morning moved to quell reservations among their conference about the emerging $1.2 trillion-plus final spending package headed for a vote likely on Friday, while their Democratic counterparts did likewise in a separate meeting.

Appropriators were scrambling under a tight timeline to finish drafting the measure, which is taking longer than expected due to a last-minute decision to write a full-year Homeland Security bill. But Johnson told reporters after a GOP conference meeting that text is expected as soon as Wednesday afternoon.

Other sources expected the bill drop to slip to Thursday, with the standard “reading out” of the DHS title, to catch any errors before posting, not even expected to begin until later Wednesday. But no matter: Lawmakers said they expect the chamber to vote as soon as Friday, regardless of a 72-hour review rule.

“The conversation that we were having is there could be a blend of a realistic timeline, where it may not be a full 72 hours, but it’s not going to just be 24 hours,” Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., said after the meeting.

Final passage wouldn’t come until this weekend at the earliest, and senators are working to accommodate Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who has never missed a vote but will be attending her mother’s funeral on Saturday. That could push votes off until Sunday or Monday, though few are worried at this point about the effects of such a brief funding lapse. 

“I don’t think we’ll do a [continuing resolution],” Johnson said.

Border ‘wins’

Johnson ran the GOP rank-and-file through some of the party’s “wins” in the package, including on border security-related resources: 

Funding to increase Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention bed capacity from the fiscal 2023 level of 34,000 up to around 42,000, in line with the earlier House-passed, GOP-drafted version. The package would provide enough money for the U.S. Border Patrol to boost hiring and bring its “end strength” up to 22,000 agents, also in line with the earlier House bill.

Homeland Security funding for grants to nongovernmental organizations that provide shelter and services to migrants would be cut by 20 percent. The fiscal 2023 omnibus set aside up to $800 million for that purpose; the House proposed to eliminate funding, while Senate Democrats sought nearly the current funding level.

There’s no money for a U.S.-Mexico border wall, however, according to a person familiar with the final version. The House GOP’s earlier proposal would have spent over $2 billion for that purpose.

On the Defense spending portion of the package, Johnson touted the bill’s pay raise for troops, which President Joe Biden earlier set at 5.2 percent, along with cuts to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and climate-related funding.

However, in Democrats’ caucus meeting on Wednesday, Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said the final bill would actually increase Pentagon climate change programs.

The difference is based on a semantic dispute over which “baseline” to use: While the bill would boost Pentagon climate-related funding by $1 billion over the current year, it will contain less than Biden’s budget request sought.

Foreign aid, UNRWA cuts

In State-Foreign Operations, no funding will be approved in fiscal 2024 for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Refugees in the Near East, commonly known as UNRWA, and there’s a ban on obligating pre-existing funds for that agency included through March 2025.

With several staffers for the group accused of complicity in Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel, there is little political support at this point for UNRWA on Capitol Hill — at least not enough to provide new funding for the group or keep the temporary ban out.

The Biden administration has already put in place its own pause on UNRWA funding, so there will be little change from current policy once the bill becomes law.

The measure also will contain a rider preventing the State Department from flying anything but a U.S. flag at its overseas diplomatic facilities; this was an applause line in the GOP meeting when Johnson announced it, a person familiar with the discussion said.

The rider appears aimed at Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s 2021 decision to allow U.S. embassies and consulates to fly Pride flags, which conservatives have criticized. The language mirrors a similar provision applying to flags at Defense Department facilities tucked into the fiscal 2024 defense authorization law, but is narrower in scope, a person familiar with the details said.

Overall, foreign aid accounts would see a 6 percent cut below the current year, according to Johnson’s presentation to GOP lawmakers. Democrats countered that core humanitarian aid accounts would be protected and even see a boost above fiscal 2023, however.

Democrats touted other wins in the foreign aid title: Increased “special immigrant visas” for Afghans who aided U.S. personnel in that country before the 2021 withdrawal and Taliban takeover; a one-year extension of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief program, known as PEPFAR; and International Monetary Fund loan authority.

Abortion, gas stoves

Other “wins” Johnson presented include preservation of the standard “Hyde amendment” language in the Labor-HHS-Education bill barring federal funding for abortions and related services in most cases. But Democrats are telling their own membership there are no new abortion restrictions, nor any more anti-LGBTQ riders.

The Financial Services measure will include a rider barring the Consumer Product Safety Commission from moving ahead with any plan to prohibit the sale of gas stoves, which have been alleged to pose health risks in certain circumstances. The move is probably symbolic at best, as the CPSC has said there are no plans for such a move.

Title I, NIH, FBI

House Republicans initially sought to slash Title I education funding for school districts serving a higher proportion of low-income children by 80 percent, or nearly $15 billion. Those cuts are gone, and overall K-12 education funding would see a slight boost over the current year, Democrats say. Child care grants and Head Start funding for early childhood education programs would also see increases.

Medical research at the National Institutes of Health, typically a bipartisan favorite, would again be a winner, particularly in the areas of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. And more funding to operate the 988 suicide hotline would be preserved in the deal.

Money to construct a new FBI headquarters is also included, despite some GOP attempts to zero it out. House Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Steve Womack, R-Ark., has previously said negotiators landed at $275 million, or $100 million below what his Senate counterparts proposed.

Paul M. Krawzak and Peter Cohn contributed to this report.

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