Political News

$1.3 Trillion Spending Bill Breezes Through Congress

Posted March 23, 2018 1:03 a.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Congress gave swift approval to a $1.3 trillion spending bill that will keep the federal government open through September but broadly defies the Trump administration’s wishes to reshape it.

The House voted 256-167 to approve the bill early Thursday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the spending plan, which stretched 2,232 pages, had been unveiled.

After a scare over whether a fiscally conservative senator might force a brief government shutdown this weekend, along with an unexpected grievance from another senator over the renaming of an Idaho wilderness area, the Senate approved the measure early Friday morning, 65-31.

Government funding was set to expire at midnight Friday, but by giving quick approval to the bill, lawmakers moved to avert what would have been the third shutdown of the year.

The spending bill, which congressional leaders agreed to Wednesday and President Donald Trump seemed to grudgingly endorse on Twitter, provides big increases to the military and to domestic programs — and clearly rebuffs the Trump administration’s efforts to sharply scale back the reach and scope of the federal government.

The bill funds the government for the 2018 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1 and is already almost halfway over. Congress paved the way for this week’s legislation with a two-year budget deal last month that raised strict limits on military and domestic spending by about $140 billion this year.

In dividing up the spoils of that budget agreement, Congress broadly rebuked the Trump administration’s initial vision for the federal government in many ways. The president’s desire to drastically cut spending on the environment was rebuffed. Programs like the National Endowment for the Arts and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, far from being eliminated, were spared any reductions. Not only did the administration’s request for deep cuts to the National Institutes of Health go nowhere, but Congress gave the agency an additional $3 billion.

“Sometimes you save the president from themselves,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the health institutes.

The spending bill “repudiates the abysmal Trump budget, investing robustly in critical priorities like child care; transportation infrastructure; national security; election protection; medical research; opioid abuse, prevention and treatment; veterans’ health services; and much more,” said Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

At the White House, Trump’s top advisers worked to put the best face on a package they conceded fell short of fully funding his priorities and contained many items he would rather not have accepted.

“In order to get the defense spending, primarily, but all the rest of our priorities funded, we had to give away a lot of stuff that we didn’t want to give away” to Democrats, Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, told reporters during a briefing where he also highlighted funding in important areas like the military, school safety,border security and combating the opioid crisis.

“My job is to get the president’s priorities funded, which this does,” added Mulvaney, a onetime budget hawk in Congress who routinely voted against large spending packages and sidestepped a question on whether he would have done so for the measure now before lawmakers. “The president wants it to pass and wants it to be signed.”

But the bill landed with a thud among conservatives who are still on Capitol Hill. The House Freedom Caucus, whose founding members included Mulvaney, formally opposed it and sent a letter to Trump urging him to reject it.

Another founding member of the Freedom Caucus, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said the spending bill was “maybe the worst bill I’ve ever seen” and recalled the 2016 election that put Republicans in full control of Washington.

“Nov. 8, 2016, I doubt that the voters were saying, ‘Put Republicans in power so that they can pass a bill that continues to fund sanctuary cities, continues to fund Planned Parenthood,'” he said. “Really? Really? That’s what the election was about?”

Among other things, the bill includes $1.6 billion for more than 90 miles of physical barriers along the border with Mexico, as well as related technology. But that sum is far short of what Trump would need to construct the expansive border wall that he promised in his campaign for president.

The bill does not address the fate of young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children and have been shielded from deportation by an Obama-era program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, that Trump moved last year to end.

As November’s midterm elections loom, the spending bill allows lawmakers from both parties to go home and claim success on a wide range of issues, including beefing up the military and providing much-needed funding for priorities such as combating the opioid crisis and rebuilding crumbling infrastructure.

That additional spending comes at the expense of adding even further to the national debt, which has topped $21 trillion. The growing debt has seemed of minimal concern on Capitol Hill in recent months, where Republicans passed a sweeping tax overhaul late last year that will also result in piling up more debt.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., an outspoken deficit hawk who nonetheless voted for the tax overhaul, called the spending bill “one of the most grotesque pieces of legislation I can remember.”

“I know it’s going to pass overwhelmingly because there’s too much in it to make people happy for the moment,” he said. “But let me just say, down the road, the American people are going to be very unhappy with our lack of responsibility.” Aside from the bill’s contents, the process for approving it this week left bruised feelings as well, as the bill was not made public until Wednesday night.

“In all honesty, none of us know what is actually in this bill,” Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said Thursday morning, just hours before House members were asked to vote on it.

Though the bill’s eventual approval in the Senate was never in doubt, it was unclear for hours on Thursday whether the chamber would be able to hold a quick vote on the legislation.

If a senator insisted, he or she could have blocked the Senate from voting until early Saturday, causing a brief shutdown of the government. In a similar situation last month, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., did exactly that, raising concerns that he could take another stand this week.

Paul has made clear in recent days that he disapproves of both the process for jamming the spending bill through Congress as well as the substance of the legislation.

“I’m upset that we’re spending like every Democrat that we criticized,” he said this week.

Paul fumed about the bill in a series of Twitter posts Thursday, offering observations as he made his way through the legislation, which he said took more than two hours to print in his office.

But Paul did not end up forcing the issue. “Victory for conservatives today is that all of America now knows what a budget busting bomb this bill is,” he wrote on Twitter.

Late Thursday night, another hiccup emerged: Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, was unhappy with a measure that had been tucked into the spending bill renaming the White Clouds Wilderness in his state, according to Senate aides.

The wilderness would be named for Cecil D. Andrus, a four-term governor of Idaho who was interior secretary under President Jimmy Carter. Andrus died last year, and, according to Senate aides, Risch objected to the provision affixing his name to the wilderness.