The Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly passed an $857 billion spending package that Republican leaders are counting on to convince President Donald Trump to back down from threats of a government shutdown in September.
The package, an uncommon bipartisan truce to fund two-thirds of government operations, was strategically crafted to ward off a presidential veto. But the odds remain long that the legislation will even make it to the White House, with just 11 working days left for House and Senate lawmakers to merge opposing versions of the bills — and get Trump’s approval — before funding runs out on Sept. 30.
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The Senate passed the fiscal 2019 package 85-7 during its rare mid-August session, after spending leaders brokered a temporary detente on including partisan policy language that has traditionally hindered the chamber’s ability to pass funding bills.
The two bills in the package, which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called “hugely important,” would fund the departments of Defense, Labor, Education and HHS. The legislation includes victories for both parties, like the largest military pay raise in nearly a decade and an expansion of programs to counter opioid addiction.
At the same time, McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer sidestepped political flash points like efforts to include provisions on abortion funding and the Trump administration’s policies for separating families that cross the border illegally.
For several hours Thursday afternoon, GOP leaders quarreled with Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) over a Planned Parenthood amendment, which leadership said was initially drafted in a way that did not make it eligible for a simple majority threshold.
While that amendment fell 45-48 — under a 60-vote threshold — the effort still forced vulnerable Democrats into an uncomfortable vote at the height of campaign season.
In total, more than 300 amendments were filed, ranging from efforts to influence caps on Pell Grants to funding for coal miner’s health programs. Before passage, more than 50 were swiftly adopted by unanimous consent.
Capitol Hill leaders say they haven’t received concrete assurances that Trump will sign any of the fiscal 2019 bills without a promise for $5 billion in border wall funding. But Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) has argued that the Senate’s progress will convince Trump to sign at least the two biggest measures — Defense and Labor-HHS-Education — by the Sept. 30 deadline.
“The more we get done, it strengthens our hand. It strengthens everybody’s hand,” the chairman said this week.
Shelby said Senate leaders intentionally paired the Pentagon’s budget with that of wide-ranging domestic departments to create a bundle that they believe Trump couldn’t refuse.
“I just want to mark what we’ve accomplished here today,” Shelby said on the floor before passage, noting that the Senate is matching a record last set in 1999 for its pace of passing spending bills. “This is a milestone.”
If signed into law, it would be the first time the Pentagon receives its new budget on time in 12 years — a talking point Republican leaders hope Trump will choose over extra funding for a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In a win for the president, the Senate’s bill would deliver a $20.4 billion increase for the Pentagon, lifting its budget to a near-historic high. The measure would also fund a 2.6 percent pay raise for troops and would pay for 6,961 additional soldiers.
Democrats have cheered large increases in funding levels for non-defense programs they say were starved under sequestration, such as Head Start, mental health programs and school grants.
HHS would see a $2.3 billion boost, including a 5.4 percent increase for the National Institutes of Health. Education programs would get a $541 million boost, while the Labor Department’s budget would remain flat.
The two bills represent the eighth and ninth spending measures the Senate has passed this summer, likely the last of 12 to clear the chamber ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline. The rest, including the bill that would fund Trump’s border wall, are expected to be funded on autopilot under a continuing resolution through the midterms and into Congress’ lame-duck session.
Thursday’s vote is another major step in the Senate’s bipartisan attempt to avoid another year-end, catchall “omnibus,” which Trump said he would refuse to sign in September. Instead, congressional leaders plan to send the bills to the president’s desk in smaller batches.
The Senate has already approved three of those so-called minibus groupings this summer.
Senate lawmakers are now expected to enter into conference negotiations with their House counterparts to reconcile the Defense and Labor-HHS-Education bills. Lawmakers will have roughly five weeks to hash out differences in competing versions of the measures.
Adam Cancryn contributed to this report.