House clears long-delayed spending package ahead of shutdown deadline

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The House approved a six-bill government funding package on Wednesday, sending the bill to the Senate with little time to spare before yet another government shutdown deadline.

The upper chamber must now lock down an agreement to speed up votes on the $459 billion measure before the weekend, which requires consent from all 100 senators. Republicans will likely demand a number of amendment votes in exchange, though none are expected to succeed.

Facing heat from his right flank, Speaker Mike Johnson relied on robust support from Democrats to pass the package in a 339-85 vote. He managed to still secure backing from a majority of the House GOP, a muted win for the speaker as conservatives grumble about his tendency to heavily lean on Democrats to pass major legislation. Ultimately, 132 Republicans supported the measure, while 207 Democrats voted in favor of the bill.

Congress is now halfway to sending a half-dozen annual spending bills to President Joe Biden’s desk, with a Saturday shutdown deadline looming. It’s the first real legislative progress lawmakers have made toward funding the government for the fiscal year that began more than five months ago, during an appropriations cycle primarily delayed by House Republican infighting.

And another deadline is fast approaching. Congressional leaders have until March 22 to clear another six spending bills that present an indisputably bigger challenge, comprising about 70 percent of the federal discretionary budget, including the Pentagon and health, labor and education programs.

The six-bill bundle passed Wednesday would fund more than a dozen federal departments and independent agencies that handle transportation, energy, housing, agriculture and veterans programs. Congressional leaders unveiled the measure on Sunday after weeks of negotiating and sparring over policy provisions, with Johnson under enormous pressure to deliver GOP wins.

In a floor speech, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pledged to start moving the package in the upper chamber immediately.

“It took a lot of bipartisan cooperation to reach this agreement on these six appropriations bills,” he said. “Now it will take more bipartisan cooperation to finish them.”

During a press conference Wednesday to rail on earmarks included in the bills, Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Rick Scott of Florida, Roger Marshall of Kansas and Mike Braun of Indiana said they’ll be pushing for some amendment votes once the funding package reaches the Senate.

“The only way you get an amendment vote is to be a pain in the butt,” Scott said.

Frequent contrarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said Wednesday that he hadn’t decided whether he will demand amendment votes to the funding package.

With little extra non-defense funding to work with for the current fiscal year, the measure keeps spending levels mostly stagnant at agencies like the Agriculture Department and the FDA. The bills funding the departments of Transportation and Energy would see small budget increases, while agencies like the Interior Department, the EPA, the Justice Department and the National Science Foundation are set to see some cuts.

The White House urged “swift passage” of the bill in a statement on Tuesday, noting that it “represents a compromise and neither side got everything it wanted, but it would prevent a damaging shutdown of several key agencies, protect key priorities and make progress for the American people.”

Democrats are lauding a $1 billion boost for a nutrition assistance program for moms and babies, known as WIC, defeating a Republican push to only provide that funding if they got a pilot program aimed at restricting SNAP food aid purchases.

And Republicans are championing a policy provision that would preserve gun rights for military veterans who are unable to manage their VA benefits or finances. However, the Senate had already adopted those protections as an amendment last fall with support from Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and Angus King (I-Maine).

There is some last-minute drama over that rider and other provisions in the bill, though none are expected to imperil passage. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a senior appropriator who oversees the complicated Homeland Security spending bill, is already vowing to oppose the funding package over the VA gun policy provision, arguing that he can’t support the rider “with this many lives in the balance.”

Democrats have worried the provision could potentially contribute to more gun violence, deaths and veteran suicides. Murphy said he unsuccessfully fought to have it stripped out, arguing this concerns “very, very mentally ill veterans.”

And Pennsylvania’s two Democratic senators on Wednesday pulled support for a $1 million earmark for a LGBTQ+ community center in Philadelphia, amid a broader partisan standoff over steering federal cash to programs for LGBTQ+ people.

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