WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate approved broadly bipartisan legislation Thursday that would provide billions for natural disaster relief, military and economic aid to Ukraine and funding to help low-income families offset the rising costs of heating and cooling their homes.
It includes $2.5 billion in assistance for the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire that burned large swaths of New Mexico this spring, $2 billion in Community Development Block Grant disaster relief funding for states impacted by natural disasters during 2021 and 2022, and $1 billion for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
President Joe Biden said Thursday that given ongoing natural disasters, such as the hurricane in Florida now moving up the coast, more funding may be needed later this year to help communities recover from hurricanes and severe storms.
The package approved Thursday was formed around a short-term spending bill that must pass before Friday at midnight to keep the federal government open through Dec. 16 while congressional leaders and the Biden administration attempt to reach a full-year spending deal.
Using the stopgap spending bill to give themselves a couple more months to work through the annual appropriations process is a regular practice for Congress, which hasn’t completed its work on time since the last century.
The 72-25 Senate vote Thursday sends the measure to the U.S. House, where members are expected to clear the package for Biden on Friday. Both of North Carolina’s senators — Richard Burr and Thom Tillis — voted ‘yes.’
Republican Sens. voting against the package were Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Mike Braun of Indiana, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, Mike Crapo of Idaho, Ted Cruz of Texas, Steve Daines of Montana, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, Josh Hawley of Missouri, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, Roger Marshall of Kansas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, James Risch of Idaho, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Rick Scott of Florida, Tim Scott of South Carolina, John Thune of South Dakota, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama.
Manchin plan yanked
The legislation cleared an important procedural vote earlier this week after West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III asked Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to remove an energy permitting reform bill the two agreed to tack on to the must-pass package.
Republicans had broadly rejected the energy permitting bill while Democrats in both chambers of Congress criticized both the substance of the bill and the fact Manchin and Schumer struck a deal to advance the measure through Congress without input from other Democrats.
Schumer and Manchin both said they hope to find a path forward for the energy permitting legislation before this session of Congress ends later this year. But that bill would likely need a rewrite to garner necessary support from members.
The spending bill approved Thursday includes more than $12 billion in economic and military assistance for Ukraine as the country continues its war against Russia’s invasion into the winter months.
This round of funding for Ukraine would bring the United States’ investment in the conflict to $66 billion.
Schumer said in a floor speech Thursday that American weaponry has helped Ukraine’s military turn the tide against Russia.
“We cannot stop now,” Schumer said.
The package doesn’t include any new funding for ongoing public health emergencies, rejecting the White House’s request for $22.4 billion in COVID-19 funding and $4.5 billion for the monkeypox outbreak.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Pat Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said just before the vote that he will push to get COVID-19 funding in the full-year government funding package that could pass in December.
More time for negotiation
The short-term government funding part of the measure is intended to give Congress and the Biden administration more time to negotiate total discretionary spending levels for fiscal 2023, slated to begin Oct. 1.
Those negotiations never really got off the ground after Biden sent Congress his budget request in March, asking U.S. lawmakers to provide $795 billion for defense spending and $915 billion for nondefense programs, which includes funding for the Homeland Security, Justice and Veterans Affairs departments.
Republicans scoffed at the defense request, saying it didn’t increase spending on those programs nearly enough compared to current funding of $782 billion.
Many GOP lawmakers also argued the proposed jump in nondefense funding, from $730 billion, was a bit too high.
Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican set to retire at the end of this Congress, said he thinks there’s a good chance the two parties will reach an agreement this year.
“A lot of that will come from what we can do with the defense number—if we can work that out, I bet we can work the other out,” Shelby said.
Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, chair of the subcommittee that funds the Agriculture Department, the Food and Drug Administration and rural development programs, said she expects Leahy and Shelby’s retirements will provide momentum to complete full-year government spending bills during the lame-duck session.
“I think minds will focus and agreement will be reached following the midterms,” Baldwin said. “I think that’s when there’ll be greater focus and a month to get it done basically.”
“You have a retiring chairman and ranking member who very much want to make sure we have an omnibus rather than a continuing resolution,” she added. “And I think they’ll be committed to that.”
Schumer, a New York Democrat, said Thursday he hopes congressional leaders can broker an agreement for full-year appropriations bills this year.
“I hope this is the last CR of Chairman Leahy’s illustrious career, because we’re all hopeful that an omnibus will be the last funding bill we do later this year,” Schumer said.
Waiting on November
Indiana GOP Sen. Mike Braun, ranking member of the Legislative Branch funding panel that provides money for Congress and the Supreme Court, said he expects the dozen spending bills will come together faster than the last go around, which ended more than five months late this March.
“I do think it will probably get done more quickly than that, but nobody’s given any indication,” he said.
Braun doesn’t expect congressional leaders and the Biden administration will agree to total spending levels, the first step to writing full-year bills, until after everyone knows the results of November’s midterm elections
“Probably not. I mean, you could do it. But depending on the outcome, you might have to start it all over again,” he said.
Once that agreement is reached, Braun said, he doesn’t expect to be closely involved in final negotiations over the spending package.
“We generally don’t hear anything until it’s done; mostly behind closed doors and then dropped into our lap,” he said.
Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, the top Republican on the subcommittee that funds the Energy Department and Army Corps of Engineers, said he expects the package to come together after the election.
“Look, what I see happening is once again the so-called leadership gets together and puts together an omnibus and gives it to us and says, ‘Take it or leave it,’” he said.
That process, Kennedy said, is “an insult to the American people and a horrible way to put together” the final versions of the annual government funding bills.