Senate begins debate on $1.7 trillion deal to fund government, avert shutdown

Washington Post photo by Bill O’Leary
Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), left, and Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) talk before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing in May.

WASHINGTON – The Senate on Tuesday took the first formal step toward advancing a bipartisan, roughly $1.7 trillion deal to fund the U.S. government, as Democrats and Republicans raced to avert a shutdown in the final days of the year.

Lawmakers voted 70-25 to begin debate on the 4,155-page measure, known in congressional parlance as an omnibus, which would fund key elements of President Joe Biden’s economic agenda, boost defense programs, and provision an additional $44.9 billion in emergency military and economic assistance for Ukraine.

The lumbering Senate sought to move with uncharacteristic haste after congressional leaders released the full text of the bill in the early hours of the morning, capping off months of intense legislating. The subsequent vote splintered Republicans, some of whom threatened each other politically, as conservatives argued that the party should have walked away from budget talks until the GOP assumed control of the House in January.

Democrats and Republicans agreed to stitch onto the omnibus a wide array of long-simmering and stalled bills, recognizing that the must-pass funding measure marks their final major legislative opening before Congress resets in the new year. They appended proposals to improve pandemic readiness, extend some Medicaid benefits, help Americans save for retirement, ban TikTok on government devices and change the way the country counts presidential electoral votes. The bipartisan election bill – known as the Electoral Count Reform Act – sought to respond to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Yet the two parties could not find compromises on other outstanding fiscal and economic debates, particularly around a package of tax credits that might have aided low-income families with children while preserving tax breaks for businesses – a slew of thorny issues that now await lawmakers in a tougher political environment next year.

From here, the Capitol faces a race against the clock: Lawmakers have until the end of Friday to approve the package or else federal funds are set to run out, bringing key agencies and programs to a halt. To prevent a catastrophic shutdown, the two warring parties must band together, particularly in the narrowly divided Senate, where Democrats need Republican support to speed up the process and hold a final vote. That could come as soon as Wednesday, setting up the House to act shortly after.

Taking to the chamber floor, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said earlier Tuesday that he hoped lawmakers could complete work on the omnibus “well before” the Friday deadline, as he cited a slew of factors – including a looming snowstorm that threatens to snarl holiday travel – as reasons to avoid delay.

“Nobody wants a shutdown, nobody benefits from a shutdown, so I hope nobody will stand in the way of funding the government ASAP,” Schumer said.

In his own speech, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) touted the bill as an “impressive outcome for the Republican negotiators,” particularly given its proposed boost for the Pentagon. Even as he acknowledged the “dysfunctional” process that produced it, McConnell said the party faced two choices: adopt the omnibus or risk disruptions to defense.

“The Senate should pass this bill,” he said.

But McConnell’s praise appeared to peeve members of his own party: A small group of Senate Republicans even held a news conference Tuesday to blast the compromise and criticize those who portrayed the bill as a victory. They faulted negotiators for releasing the measure in the “dead of night,” in the words of Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), and said it would greatly grow the federal debt.

“The American people don’t want this. They are sick and tired of it. They are paying for it through the nose with inflation,” Paul said, flanked by some of his peers. “We’re standing up, and we’re going to say no.”

Some in the party said they preferred to defer any debate until next year, an approach favored by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the chamber’s minority leader, who is vying to become speaker next year. Days after chastising McConnell, the House GOP leader escalated his threats: He pledged Tuesday on Twitter that bills originating in the Senate next year – even those authored by Republicans – “will be dead on arrival in the House” if the $1.7 trillion omnibus passes.

McCarthy’s comments came hours after conservative-leaning Republicans blasted the bill in a public letter as “indefensible” and similarly pledged to “do everything in our power” to undermine members of their own party who supply their votes to Democrats.

“Kill this terrible bill or there is no point in pretending we are a united party, and we must prepare for a new political reality,” wrote Reps. Chip Roy (Texas), Scott Perry (Pa.), Andy Biggs (Ariz.) and other conservatives.

The release of the omnibus followed weeks of haggling largely among a trio of lawmakers who oversee congressional appropriations: Sens. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). Particularly for Leahy and Shelby, who are set to retire at the end of the session, the agreement cemented their status as bipartisan dealmakers – and secured billions of dollars for political pet projects, or earmarks, for themselves and others in Congress.

The top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Kay Granger (Texas), previously criticized lawmakers’ work on a long-term spending agreement. In the days before its release, GOP leaders in the chamber even encouraged their members to vote against a one-week spending stopgap, known as a continuing resolution, that kept the government running while talks proceeded. If Republicans had prevailed, they would have caused a shutdown at the end of last week.

“We should be passing a continuing resolution into next year instead of buying more time to rush through a massive spending package,” Granger said during the House debate.

Partisan disputes spoiled other discussions, including a last-minute push to secure a deal on taxes. Democrats had hoped to expand the child tax credit after an earlier policy – providing monthly payments to low-income families in need – expired last year. Republicans, meanwhile, aimed to preserve tax breaks for businesses that the party first secured under its 2017 overhaul. Ultimately, though, the two sides could not find common ground on a compromise, foreshadowing the tough fights to come in a divided Congress next year.

In brokering the current deal, Democrats and Republicans labored under a belief that the alternatives – either a temporary fix or a year-long extension of current funding levels – could have invited political bickering and left key federal agencies, including the Pentagon, ill-equipped in the new year.

To assuage Republicans, who insisted on robust defense spending, the omnibus included more than $800 billion for the Pentagon and related programs.

Shelby, in a statement earlier Tuesday, cited the increase as he highlighted how the “far from perfect” negotiations had “allowed Republican redlines to be adhered to.” He urged his colleagues to back the bill. “We need to do our job and fund the government,” he said.

The omnibus also proposed nearly $773 billion for many domestic programs, including a significant increase in federal funding for veterans and new money meant to improve child-care programs, combat substance abuse and help needy families access food.

“It directly invests in the American people,” Leahy said during a floor speech before the vote Tuesday. “This is the byproduct of bipartisan negotiations.”

Lawmakers also provided new money for some of Biden’s top accomplishments, including bipartisan laws to boost U.S. infrastructure and to promote the domestic manufacturing of small computer chips, known as semiconductors. And the bill provisioned about $40 billion in emergency funds in response to recent natural disasters, including Hurricane Ian.

“As communities across the country work to rebuild after unprecedented natural disasters, this bill provides the urgently needed support to help families, small businesses, and entire towns and cities get back on their feet and repair damaged infrastructure,” DeLauro said in an earlier statement.

But Democrats did not secure all of the spending they sought. In the days before negotiators released their measure, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, warned that the party would see “painful cuts” but acknowledged that was still “a lot better than it would be” if lawmakers had simply extended existing funding levels.

Republicans also refused to relent in their long-standing opposition to delivering new money to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. The White House had asked for $22.4 billion, largely to purchase and facilitate the next generation of vaccines, yet GOP lawmakers refused to budge even as top administration officials warned about the risks of poor preparation.

The must-pass spending bill still offered an opening for lawmakers to advance a slew of other proposals, some of which target Medicaid, which provides health insurance to low-income Americans. In a win for Republicans, the package would allow states to reevaluate who is still eligible for the program beginning in April. It also included some long-sought Democratic priorities, such as allowing states to permanently extend Medicaid coverage for new mothers for 12 months and barring children from getting kicked off their Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program coverage for a continuous 12 months, even if a family’s income fluctuates.

Congress also clinched a deal to avert a lapse in critical dollars for the U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico.