Senate Backs Broad Spending Bill With Tougher Fiscal Fight Ahead

  • Bipartisan Senate vote sends $1.17 trillion measure to Trump
  • He faces bipartisan clash in looming fight over 2018 budget

The U.S. Senate did its part to avert a government shutdown by sending President Donald Trump a $1.17 trillion spending bill that shuns his priorities, including a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, a reflection of the might of minority Democrats.

The 79-18 vote funds the government through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. It provides a boost for defense while ignoring the White House’s proposed $18 billion cuts in spending for the environment, health care and other domestic programs.

"I believe we were elected in November to govern, not to somehow engage in a shutdown narrative," Senator John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican leader, said on the Senate floor Thursday. He heralded added monies for defense and border security, as well as smaller victories such as new disaster relief funding to help those hurt by flooding in his home state of Texas.

Trump is expected to sign the bill, even though the White House was largely cut out of bipartisan talks over the legislation. The action clears the way for a more grueling debate over government funding for next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The administration is proposing $54 billion in domestic cuts and a $54 billion boost for the military in fiscal 2018. He faces bipartisan opposition to many portions of his request.

This fiscal year’s spending bill was passed Wednesday by the House on a relatively bipartisan 309-118 vote, although that cooperation may be temporary.

Democrats in both chambers claimed victory because they warded off budget cuts and extraneous policy “riders” they opposed.

“At the end of the day, this is an agreement that reflects our basic principles and is something both Democrats and Republicans should support,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday on the Senate floor. “The bill shows how bipartisanship should work.”

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney accused Democrats of “spiking the football” and said the bill’s $21 billion in added defense spending -- which includes $6 billion signed into law last year under the Obama administration -- was a win for Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed and asserted that it also makes a dent in Democratic demands that defense spending increases be matched by boosts in non-defense programs.

“President Trump and the Republicans in Congress made rebuilding our military a priority, and this funding bill acts on it,” McConnell said.

The spending bill underscores the constraints on Republicans, even though they control the White House and both chambers of Congress. With just 52 Republican senators and a fractured GOP majority in the House, most legislation still needs some Democratic support to clear. A number of House Republicans routinely oppose big spending bills.

Democrats said they succeeded in eliminating 160 policy provisions they opposed, secured health benefits for retired miners and helped Puerto Rico fund its Medicaid program. Instead of placing stricter limits on legal immigration, the spending bill extends an investor visa program, expands a low-skilled workers’ visa program and would allow thousands of more Afghan refugees.

The measure would make only a small spending cut for the Environmental Protection Agency, which Trump wanted to slice, while the National Institutes of Health, also on Trump’s chopping block, would receive a $2 billion boost. The Securities and Exchange Commission will be funded at $1.6 billion and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission at $250 million, the same amounts as in 2016.

The bill, H.R. 244, has an additional $1.5 billion for border security, including 5,000 more immigration detention beds. The money can’t be spent on a border wall.

With this fiscal year’s funding resolved, confrontations over the fiscal 2018 budget loom. Democrats are united against many of Trump’s proposed cuts, and Republicans, including Senator John McCain of Arizona and Representative Hal Rogers of Kentucky, predict final agreements on program spending will look far different than the president’s vision.

Gridlock could lead to a showdown in September, when Trump said he believes the U.S. may need a "good" shutdown to achieve the budget cuts and border wall funding he is seeking.

"There’s a real danger of the whole process breaking down" said Representative David Price of North Carolina, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing transportation spending. 

"What really matters is whether the budget resolution is a Mick Mulvaney-type document or not," he said referring to Trump’s budget director, who backs deep cuts.

House and Senate Republican leaders made clear this week they have no appetite for a government closure. Instead, there is some prospect for a stopgap spending bill that keeps the provisions of today’s omnibus spending measure for months or even the full fiscal year.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said this week that he wants to follow the proper procedure of passing 12 individual spending bills for fiscal 2018, but there’s little chance that happens.

Congress is rapidly running out of time, having missed the April 15 deadline for agreeing to a budget plan for next fiscal year. Appropriators need an overall spending number, which would be contained in such a fiscal blueprint, to begin working on the next round of spending bills.

A chance to push through an annual budget plan is now slated to come in June at the earliest, leaving just a month of work before Congress’s annual August recess. Leaders plan to focus on a giant overhaul of the tax code during the month of July already.

— With assistance by Anna Edgerton

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