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Final spending package unveiled, countdown to recess begins

Text release comes with little time to spare before Friday night deadline as lawmakers eye exits

Peak bloom cherry blossoms frame the U.S. Capitol dome on the first full day of spring Wednesday morning.
Peak bloom cherry blossoms frame the U.S. Capitol dome on the first full day of spring Wednesday morning. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Lawmakers released a more than $1.2 trillion, six-bill appropriations package early Thursday morning, less than 48 hours ahead of a Friday night deadline for this second and final wrapup measure for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. 

Both parties were touting “wins” in the package well before unveiling the massive 1,012-page bill, which had already won President Joe Biden’s blessing and pledge to sign it “immediately.” That, plus the lure of a two-week recess, should help get the package over the finish line, though it seems likely to slip past the 11:59 p.m. Friday cutoff for the current stopgap spending law.

But lawmakers weren’t really sweating the prospect of a weekend funding lapse, given its limited impact on government operations — especially with Friday’s expected House passage likely to be a strong signal of congressional intent to keep the lights on.

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

The agreement marks the culmination of a tumultuous budget cycle that began with the election of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., with pledges to rein in spending, which proved too heavy a lift.

McCarthy’s conference tried for months, with middling success, to produce the votes for bills that would cut spending below the previous fiscal year and impose conservative social policy riders. But they mostly hit a wall with GOP centrists, who knew the right-leaning bills would never advance in the Democrat-controlled Senate anyway. 

McCarthy wound up sacked by rebellious members of his conference, ostensibly for putting a stopgap funding bill on the floor last September without any conservative “wins.” But McCarthy’s successor, Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., ultimately chose a similar path, adhering to the spending and debt limit deal McCarthy cut with Biden with only modest changes.

Progress on process

One procedural victory that Johnson orchestrated was to avoid a massive omnibus package encompassing all dozen annual spending bills.

His “laddered” stopgap approach resulted in the current two-tiered deadline structure that saw the first six bills, encompassing about 30 percent of the discretionary budget, become law on March 9.

That measure won big majorities in both chambers — including a clear majority of Johnson’s own conference, in itself no easy feat and helping burnish the new speaker’s leadership credentials.

Democrats and Republicans, the House and Senate all cycle long had been bickering over Homeland Security funding and the migrant surge at the southern border. That dispute helped bottle up supplemental aid for Ukraine and Israel, and the delays have made a major DHS cash crunch worse.

In the end, House and Senate negotiators were prepared to simply move forward a stopgap extension for DHS through Sept. 30, though with some funding adjustments to ease the pain a little.

But then this past weekend, the White House said “no deal” on a continuing resolution, arguing that there was no way to keep DHS whole throughout the year. Johnson ultimately took credit for cutting a deal with the White House that boosted GOP priorities like increasing detention beds for migrants and adding more Border Patrol agents.

While most of the endgame focus was on Homeland Security, the vast majority of the package’s money — over $1 trillion — goes to the Defense and Labor-HHS-Education bills. The measure also includes the Financial Services, Legislative Branch and State-Foreign Operations bills.

The combined spending packages appear to slightly cut nondefense spending outside of veterans health care and homeland security. The State Department and foreign aid programs, a perennial GOP target, face a 6 percent cut on average below last fiscal year.

And given continued struggles with inflation, federal agency budgets will feel even lighter. Meanwhile, defense-related spending would grow by more than 3 percent under the agreement, basically keeping pace with price rises.

“House Republicans made a commitment to strategically increase defense spending, make targeted cuts to overfunded nondefense programs, and pull back wasteful spending from previous years,” House Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, said in a statement. “I am proud to say that we have delivered on that promise, and this bill is proof.”

More money for ICE, Border Patrol

Republicans heralded the Homeland Security measure, which would increase Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention bed capacity to around 42,000, the amount in the House’s version of the legislation, up from 34,000 in current law.

The bill would also boost U.S. Border Patrol hiring, increase funding for border protection technology and cut funding for nongovernmental organizations that provide shelter and services to migrants. 

“You look at the House and Senate Homeland [Security] bills, you’ll see who the kind of clear winner is here,” a GOP leadership aide said.  

The final legislation also preserves a top priority for Alaska GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan: $125 million to purchase a commercially available polar icebreaker for the Coast Guard. Concern about having enough money for that purpose caused the Alaskans to briefly hold up final passage of the first spending combo earlier this month.

Republicans are also highlighting the State-Foreign Operations bill’s continued block on funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, commonly known as UNRWA. 

The bill bans obligating preexisting funds for the agency through March 2025, and does not include any fiscal 2024 funding for the agency, following Israel’s allegations that UNRWA workers participated in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

Congressional Democrats had argued that only UNRWA was able to provide the aid needed to Gaza, but were ultimately overruled in the talks. The Biden administration has already barred the use of prior funding for the agency.

The Defense bill would increase pay for troops by 5.2 percent, the largest percentage increase in decades, Republicans said. 

Republicans have “achieved significant conservative policy wins, rejected extreme Democrat proposals, and imposed substantial cuts to wasteful agencies and programs while strengthening border security and national defense,” Johnson said in a statement. 

Granger was particularly proud of the bill’s funding for “national security priorities,” including aid to Israel and Taiwan in lieu of the broader military package that’s still stuck in a dispute over Ukraine aid and border policy.

The bill includes $500 million for Israeli missile defense, along with its annual allotment of $3.3 billion in funding to purchase U.S.-made weaponry.

It also would bar funding for the United Nations Commission of Inquiry into potential war crimes committed by Israeli forces; prohibit the use of funding to reinstate a 2015 pact with Iran removing sanctions in exchange for a commitment not to replenish its nuclear capabilities; bar funding to move the U.S. embassy out of Jerusalem; and more.

For Taiwan, the measure would provide a combined $700 million in military and diplomatic aid.

Child care, medical research, education boosts

Democrats focused on domestic victories in the package, including a $1 billion increase in funding for child care and Head Start early education grants. The money will “lower families’ child care costs and support pre-K options for working parents across the country,” Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement.  

Democrats also highlighted a $120 million increase in funding for National Institutes of Health cancer research and a $100 million increase in Alzheimer’s and related dementia research, while staving off steep proposed cuts to K-12 and higher education programs. Ultimately, Title I funding for school districts serving larger numbers of low-income children won a $20 million boost over current funding levels.

House Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said the final Labor-HHS-Education bill contains around $40 billion more overall than the initial House GOP-drafted version.

“House Republicans’ original extreme proposal … would have hurt Americans, made them less economically secure, and cut off workers from supports that help them thrive,” DeLauro said.

In the State-Foreign Operations bill, Democrats highlighted that they secured 12,000 more visas for Afghans who worked with Americans in Afghanistan before the withdrawal and Taliban takeover in 2021, and a one-year extension of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief program. 

Defense Department climate programs would see a $1 billion boost from fiscal 2023 levels in the Defense bill, another Democratic priority in the negotiations. 

Democrats also secured one of their main priorities in the Homeland Security bill — a more than $1 billion increase for Transportation Security Administration employee salaries. 

Overall, Democrats said they succeeded in blocking nearly all of the partisan policy riders Republicans stocked their bills full of during the earlier part of the appropriations process. 

“We defeated outlandish cuts that would have been a gut punch for American families and our economy — and we fought off scores of extreme policies that would have restricted Americans’ fundamental freedoms, hurt consumers while giving giant corporations an unfair advantage, and turned back the clock on historic climate action,” Murray said. 

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