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U.S. Senate sends Biden giant spending package hours before midnight deadline

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Jennifer Shutt, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
March 8, 2024

WASHINGTON — U.S. senators on Friday cleared a bipartisan spending package for President Joe Biden’s signature, completing work on half of the annual bills that were supposed to become law by Oct. 1.

The $468 billion spending legislation rolls together the Agriculture-FDA, Commerce-Justice-Science, Energy-Water, Interior-Environment, Military Construction-VA and Transportation-HUD spending bills into a so-called “minibus.”

The House voted 339-85 on Wednesday to approve the 1,050-page spending package that was released on Sunday.

The Senate vote of 75-22 followed hours of delay as conservative GOP senators pressed to make changes to the legislation that were ultimately rejected. Any changes to the bill would have required it go back to the House for approval, likely leading to a funding lapse when a stopgap spending law expired at midnight on Friday.

The six bills are just part of the equation Congress must solve before the next funding deadline of March 22, when the other six bills, which are much more challenging and include a higher price tag, come due.

Those include Defense, Financial Services and General Government, Homeland Security, Labor-HHS-Education, Legislative Branch and State-Foreign Operations.

Senate complaints

Senate debate on this spending package was broadly bipartisan, though several conservative GOP senators argued the spending levels were too high and it didn’t do enough to rein in the Biden administration.

They also said the earmarks in the bills should be removed.

Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat, said during floor debate Friday the bill includes important priorities like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children or WIC, housing assistance, environmental protection programs and veterans health care.

“This first package is evidence that we can get things done when everyone is focused on what can actually help folks back at home and what can actually pass in a divided government,” Murray said.

“This isn’t the package I would have written on my own,” Murray added. “But I am proud that we have protected absolutely vital funding that the American people rely on in their daily lives.”

Senate Appropriations ranking member Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, rebuked some of her colleagues for making statements about the process and having the opportunity to amend the legislation that weren’t true.

She reiterated that the spending panel, made up of 29 senators from both parties, debated and approved all dozen of the full-year bills last summer on broadly bipartisan votes. The full Senate then spent nearly two months last fall debating a package that included three of the bills in this final package.

“The Ag and FDA bill, the MilCon-VA bill and the Transportation-HUD bill were brought to the Senate floor,” Collins said. “So to say, as one of my colleagues did, that there was no opportunity for amendments and debate is flat out wrong. Those bills were on the floor for about seven weeks. We had 40 amendments. So I would urge my colleagues to stop playing with fire here.”

Collins added the Senate Appropriations Committee held 50 public hearings on the budget requests from various departments and agencies before it drafted the original dozen government funding bills.

Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee spoke against approving the package, in part, because of all the spending that House and Senate lawmakers were able to direct to projects back home, known as earmarks.

“Just days ago, we saw the text of this legislation in its entirety. We saw that it contained, among other things, more than 600 pages of earmarks totaling over 6,000 earmarks,” Lee said. “It spends a lot of money. It’s significant legislation. Whether you love it or hate it, you can’t dispute the fact that the legislation does a lot of things in government. It funds a lot of things in government.”

FBI, ATF see spending cuts 

The bill includes funding for the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Transportation and Veterans Affairs.

Smaller agencies, — like the Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA, National Science Foundation and military construction projects — are also funded in the package.

Dozens of accounts throughout the six bills will need to account for spending cuts that range from mild to significant.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation as well as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, both of which have been the subject of Republican ire during the Biden administration, are seeing their funding cut.

The FBI will get $32 million less and the ATF will get $47 million less for salaries and expenses.

The Interior-Environment spending bill would see a cut of $1.5 billion to about $38.5 billion for fiscal 2024.

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, ranking member on the spending subcommittee, said Friday that negotiating the bill was especially challenging given those constraints.

“When you have cuts of that nature, it really does require some very difficult funding choices,” Murkowski said.

Appropriators, she said, looked to address “the most pressing needs within the bill” to ensure there were “meaningful reductions that are able to help us meet the terms under the Fiscal Responsibility Act.”

The payments in lieu of taxes program or PILT, which provides states with large swaths of federal public lands with funding to make up for taxes they would otherwise receive if that land were private, received full funding, Murkowski said.

“When you don’t have a tax base in your state because so much of your state is occupied as federal land — where do you generate that tax base to provide for the needs of local communities, whether it’s county roads or public safety or schools?” Murkowski said. “Well, PILT helps with that.”

The EPA, funded within that bill, will drop to $9.2 billion after receiving $10.1 billion during the last fiscal year. That represents nearly a 10% cut.

“What we attempted to do within this budget is to prioritize funding for those programs that result in concrete actions to improve the quality of the environment across the country,” Murkowski said of the EPA portion. “And I think we tried to ensure that the mission moved forward in a way that does, again, allow for that protection of the environment, but recognizing that there are many areas within the EPA budget that we could look to reduce.”

Numerous other agencies, including the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management, would see their annual appropriations cut under the bill.

WIC increase

Programs that generally garner bipartisan support had their budgets increased for fiscal year 2024.

The USDA will see its funding rise by $383 million to a total of $22.3 billion. Several of the accounts within that bill were singled out for specific spending boosts, including the Agriculture Research Service, the Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children or WIC.

Numerous other USDA accounts are seeing reductions in their budget authority. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and Agricultural Marketing Service will all need to account for millions less in spending than they currently have.

The Energy Department would see a $1.8 billion increase in spending, bringing its total budget to $50.2 billion. That money would go toward its defense activities, like the National Nuclear Security Administration, and its non-defense programs, such as nuclear energy research, development and demonstration.

Military Construction would increase to $18.7 billion, which would go toward housing, child development centers and the NATO Security Investment Program.

Medical care at the Department of Veterans Affairs would receive $121 billion in funding, an increase of $2.3 billion compared to its current funding levels. That money would be divvied up between numerous initiatives, including veterans homelessness programs, mental health, rural health care and women’s health care.

The Federal Aviation Administration would get an increase of more than $1 billion, bringing its total allocation to more than $20 billion.

Senate Democrats wrote in a summary of the bill that funding “will allow the FAA to continue its air traffic controller hiring surge by adding 1,800 new controllers, improving training facilities at the air traffic controller academy, and addressing the reliability of critical IT and telecommunications legacy systems.”

Thousands of earmarks

The package includes more than 6,600 earmarks totaling $12.655 billion, according to two people familiar with the list. All the approved earmarks as well as senators’ original requests for funding can be found here.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, didn’t request any earmarks in these six spending bills, but Speaker Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican did.

The Barksdale Air Force Base will receive $7 million for major construction on the 307 Bomb Wing Medical Facility Addition due to an earmark he sponsored alongside Louisiana GOP Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, received about 170 earmarks through these six bills, many co-sponsored with fellow New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, of New York, received 15 earmarks for projects.

Murray secured funding for nearly 60 projects, ranging from $11 million for the planning and design of an aircraft regional services facility at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island to $552,000 for a community violence prevention program in Burien, Washington, to $3 million for public safety radio network improvements in Okanogan County.

Several of Murray’s funded projects were requested alongside fellow Washington state Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell.

Collins received more than 165 funded community projects throughout these six spending bills, many of which were co-sponsored with Maine independent Sen. Angus King.

The Collins earmarks include $2.9 billion for the town of Brownfield Public Safety Building, $90,000 for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault for sexual assault expert witness and attorney training, nearly $7.8 million for the Maine Department of Marine Resources for Woodland Dam Fish Passage Replacement and $7.4 million for the National Guard to complete a vehicle maintenance shop in Saco, Maine.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.