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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

House passes bipartisan $460 billion spending bill to avert a partial shutdown

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) participates in a House Republican news conference at Capitol on Wednesday, March 6, 2024. The House on Wednesday passed a $460 billion spending bill to fund about half the federal government through the fall, moving to avert a partial shutdown at the end of the week. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

By Catie Edmondson

The House earlier this week passed a $460 billion spending bill to fund about half the federal government through the fall, moving to avert a partial shutdown at the end of the week and offering the first glimmer of resolution to bitter spending fights that have consumed Congress for months.

The 339-85 vote capped months of heated negotiations over federal funding that have repeatedly pushed the government to the edge of shutdown as Republicans pressed for cuts and conservative policies. It was yet another instance in which Speaker Mike Johnson was forced to steer around the opposition of the hard right and turn to Democrats to supply the bulk of the votes for critical legislation to keep the government running.

The Senate was expected to take up and pass the bill easily, sending it to President Joe Biden in time for it to become law before a midnight deadline Friday.

The measure would package together six spending bills, extending funding through Sept. 30 for dozens of federal programs covering agriculture, energy and the environment, transportation, housing, the Justice Department and veterans. Top lawmakers were still negotiating spending bills for the other half of the government over the same period, including for the Pentagon, which Congress must pass by March 22 to avert a lapse in funding.

On Wednesday, Johnson again relied on Democrats to push the spending legislation across the finish line, after many House Republicans refused to back it because it did not cut spending or accomplish the party’s most sweeping and divisive policy demands, including measures to limit access to abortion.

House Republicans secured some smaller victories, including cuts to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI and environmental programs. Johnson and his deputies framed the legislative package as a return to standard negotiation over individual spending bills — rather than wrapping them all together into one giant, take-it-or-leave-it bill — and said it was time to move on to the next fiscal year’s spending fight.

“House Republicans have the majority, but it’s a narrow majority, and we only control one-half of one-third of the federal government,” Johnson, R-La., said at a news conference at the Capitol before the vote. “So we have to be realistic about what we’re able to achieve.”

“But in spite of that,” he added, the bill would modestly cut domestic spending controlled by Congress.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, said Wednesday that the Senate would approve the legislation “with time to spare” before the Friday deadline.

In addition to funding for a slew of government agencies, the legislation contains $12.6 billion in earmarks, which allow lawmakers to direct federal funds for specific projects to their states and districts.

The funding levels adhere to the debt limit and spending deal negotiated last year by Biden and the speaker at the time, Kevin McCarthy, keeping spending on domestic programs essentially flat — even as funding for veterans’ programs continues to grow — while allowing military spending to increase slightly.

While members of the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus groused that the spending package did not secure the major cuts that they had wanted, there appeared to be little appetite to punish Johnson for relying on Democrats to pass it.

“Republicans will go around and talk about how they scored major wins, how they somehow delivered for the American people,” said Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, an influential conservative. “The fact of the matter is, we did no such thing.”

With some right-wing members essentially refusing to vote for any spending bill that could pass the Democratic-controlled Senate and be signed into law, Johnson, like his predecessor, has been forced to turn to Democrats, a dynamic that he has privately complained has weakened his hand at the negotiating table.

Because Democrats knew they would supply most of the votes for the spending package in the House, they were able to take a harder line in rejecting a GOP effort to start a pilot program in several states to restrict what low-income recipients could purchase with government help through the food nutrition program known as SNAP. They also resisted a bid by Republicans to defund a new rule by the Food and Drug Administration allowing mifepristone — the first pill used in a two-drug medication abortion regimen — to be distributed through the mail and at retail locations.

“This legislation does not have everything either side may have wanted, but I am pleased that many of the extreme cuts and policies proposed by House Republicans were excluded,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. “House Democrats rejected outright their archaic restrictions on women’s reproductive health care.”

Republicans were able to use the spending legislation to curtail a policy instituted by the Veterans Affairs Department that aims to prevent veteran suicides by flagging to a federal gun background check system when veterans are found to lack the mental capacity to handle their own finances.

Under language the GOP insisted on, the VA could not do so without a court order. Republicans contended that the current practice relies on an overly broad definition of incompetence and could infringe upon veterans’ Second Amendment rights.

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