Senate sends government shutdown patch to Biden’s desk

The Senate approved a stopgap funding bill Thursday night for President Joe Biden’s signature, thwarting a partial government shutdown on Saturday and buying more time to finalize half a dozen spending bills that congressional leaders aim to pass next week.

Congress now officially has until March 8 to clear that initial six-bill bundle, which leaders struck a deal on earlier this week. But they’re still working on an agreement to fund the rest of the government, including the military and some of the biggest domestic programs, before a second deadline on March 22. The upper chamber cleared the measure in a 77-13 vote, following votes on four Republican amendments that were defeated on the floor.

Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said on the floor Thursday night that leaders plan to release bill text of the six finalized bills “in the coming days” to give lawmakers time to review them before a vote next week. “We are genuinely close. And if bipartisan cooperation prevails, I am very confident we can, at long last — at long last — wrap up our FY24 bills,” she said. “It is full speed ahead.”

Appropriators are optimistic that this latest stopgap — the fourth enacted by Congress this fiscal year alone — will finally deliver enough time to wrap up funding negotiations after a particularly chaotic cycle largely derailed by House Republican infighting. If congressional leaders can successfully pass the six bills next week to fund the departments of Agriculture, Energy, Veterans’ Affairs and Transportation, they’ll face an even bigger test in trying to strike a compromise on the remaining six bills that fund the rest of the federal government.

“I think people are optimistic right now. This has been a slog. It has kind of worn people down a little bit,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), a senior appropriator. “The first six are, I mean, they’re not easy by any means, but they’re easier than what we’re going to deal with by the 22nd.”

Under the deal to fast-track passage of the stopgap, Senate leaders agreed to a vote by the end of next week on a bill sponsored by Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) that would compensate people diagnosed with cancer after being exposed to nuclear waste stored as a byproduct of the top-secret program to make an atomic bomb during World War II.

Before passage, the chamber rejected three different proposals from Republican Sens. Roger Marshall of Kansas, Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas that would fund federal agencies at current levels through the end of the fiscal year, triggering an estimated $73 billion in cuts to non-defense programs and forgoing billions of dollars in agreed-upon funding for the Pentagon. Marshall’s plan also included emergency aid to Israel, and Cruz’s proposal included H.R. 2, the House-passed border security bill.

The Senate’s top Republican appropriator, Maine Sen. Susan Collins, argued against the yearlong stopgaps her GOP colleagues proposed, saying that they would “lock in dangerously inadequate funding levels” for the Pentagon, while cutting other “vital” programs and resulting in budgets that are “misaligned” with current military needs.

The chamber also voted 37-53 to defeat an amendment from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that would prevent the Federal Reserve from buying the debt of states.

Earlier Thursday, the House passed the stopgap in a 320-99 vote. Speaker Mike Johnson secured support from a majority of his conference, despite simmering conservative discontent.

While congressional leaders plan to release text for the first tranche of bills this weekend, the second tranche of those fiscal 2024 spending measures are in various states of completion, according to Collins, the top Republican appropriator in the Senate. The funding bill for the military, for example, is in pretty good shape, Collins said. Measures that would fund the Department of Homeland Security, or the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, still have a ways to go, according to appropriators.

Republicans and Democrats are still sparring over how to split up a limited pot of money across a variety of tricky issues in the DHS budget, including salaries, detention beds, processing and asylum policies, technology and other border security efforts.

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), who oversees the massive Labor-HHS-Education measure, said appropriators are still working toward an agreement on the funding details of his bill. Policy riders are sure to snag endgame negotiations as lawmakers inch closer to their new deadline of March 22, he said.

The first slate of bills set to lapse at the end of next week cover funding for the EPA and the Department of Energy, as well as federal transportation, housing and science programs, plus military construction and water projects. Those measures also fund the departments of Justice, Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Commerce and Interior, along with the FDA and urban development projects.

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