Congress unveils long-awaited funding bills ahead of shutdown threat

Congressional leaders on Sunday finally revealed long-awaited bipartisan bills to fund parts of the government for most of the year, setting off a bicameral sprint to avert looming shutdown threat in less than a week.

The weekend rollout entails six full-year spending bills to fund a slew of agencies until early fall, including the departments of Agriculture, Interior, Transportation (DOT), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Veterans Affairs (VA), Justice (DOJ), Commerce and Energy.

The 1,050-page bipartisan package includes more than $450 billion in funding for fiscal year 2024. Lawmakers have until Friday to pass the legislation or risk a partial government shutdown under a stopgap plan President Biden signed into law this week to buy more time for spending talks.

The package sets aside nearly $100 billion for the HUD and DOT funding bill, with Democrats highlighting increases for the Federal Aviation Administration, the Maritime Administration and Homeless Assistance Grants, among other areas.

The bill also includes over $32 billion for tenant-based Section 8 vouchers, up $2.1 billion increase from the previous fiscal year, as members on both sides say more funding is needed to counter rising rents. At the same time, House Republicans say the bill cuts more than $3.2 billion across 19 DOT and HUD grant programs when compared to the previous year’s fiscal levels.

The bill provides more than $135 billion in nondefense discretionary funding for the annual VA and military construction funding measure and more than $172 billion in mandatory funding. The bill also includes funding increases for VA Medical Care, the Benefits Administration, as well as medical and prosthetics research.

The Sunday rollout comes as Congress falls behind in finishing up its funding work for fiscal year 2024, which began five months ago.

The GOP-led House and Democratic-led Senate entered negotiations with vastly different bills this year, as House Republicans pursued much more partisan measures with steep cuts to government funding that went beyond budget caps agreed to as part of the debt limit deal brokered between President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) last year.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said upon the package’s unveiling on Sunday that the party both sides were able to reach a funding compromise that will “the government open without cuts or poison pill riders.”

However, Republicans are already claiming wins in the funding package, touting cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the funding package.

Republicans highlighted some changes notched in the package, including measures they said would cut endangered species listing activities at U.S. Fish and Wildlife and another aimed at protecting guns rights of veterans seeking assistance with benefits.

They’ve also cheered changes aimed at bolstering oversight of foreign ownership of agricultural land and preventing the “sale of oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to China,” and funding boosts to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to partly support efforts tackling fentanyl, Speaker Mike Johnson’s (R-La.) office said.

“Even with divided government and a historically small House majority, House Republicans have worked hard to successfully move the policy and spending priorities of the federal government away from the previous Pelosi-Schumer FY23 appropriations, and American taxpayers will benefit from it,” Johnson said in a statement.

“This legislation forbids the Department of Justice from targeting parents exercising their right to free speech before school boards, while it blocks the Biden Administration from stripping Second Amendment rights from veterans,” he said.

Republicans say the package would mean a roughly 10 percent cut for the EPA, as appropriators on both sides have warned of tight budget constraints while crafting this year’s appropriations bills under the rules set by the previous debt ceiling deal. However, Democrats also argue current funding still maintains staffing levels across the agency’s programs.

House Republicans say the total package marks the “first overall cut to non-defense, non-VA spending in almost a decade.” Under the budget caps agreement struck last year, the Congressional Budget Office said the overall deal could reduce projected deficits by about $1.5 trillion over the next decade.

Other cuts Republicans have highlighted include a 6 percent cut to the FBI, as some conservatives have accused the agency of political weaponization. In a breakdown of the cut, the party highlighted a $654 million cut to the FBI’s operating budget, or a 6 percent reduction. It also pointed to a $621.9 million cut to the agency’s construction account, which it said amounted to a 95 percent cut.

Overall, Democrats say lawmakers provide $37.5 billion for the Department of Justice in its funding bill, which also includes dollars for the Commerce Department and science agencies. Some areas that have received funding boosts above fiscal year 2023 include NASA, climate research under the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Democrats have also lauded securing money to “fully fund” Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which provides food assistance to millions of low-income families across the country. The measure includes over $7 billion for the program, up more than $1 billion increase above fiscal year 2023 levels as Democrats have pressed for more dollars to address a shortfall.

However, the bill did not appear to include changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) sought by some Republicans as part of the negotiations aimed at ensuring recipients were using benefits to buy “nutritional” foods, while also limiting access to items to foods like soda and candy.

Some GOP negotiators argued ahead of the rollout that Democrats gained leverage in funding talks as leadership struggle to unify members amid deep divides on spending.

House GOP leadership is expected to bring up funding legislation next week under a suspension of the rules, given staunch resistance from hard-line conservatives that have been pressing for lower overall funding and partisan riders.

While that would allow the House to bring up legislation without having to do a procedural vote first, it would also require two-thirds of the chamber’s support for passage, instead of the usual simple majority threshold – meaning Democratic support would be necessary to get the measure across the finish line.

“The reality is that if you have to pass these things by suspension, you’ve given [Democrats] more strength,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who heads the subcommittee that oversees funding for the Interior Department, said.

“I can’t tell you how many times during negotiations, what we heard from the other side was ‘Hey, we’re going to bring 200 votes to pass these by suspension, what are you going to bring?’”

Updated March 4 at 2:22 p.m.

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