Senate approves interim spending bill with disaster relief and heating assistance

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate on Thursday approved largely bipartisan legislation that would provide billions for natural disaster relief, military and economic aid to Ukraine, and funding to help low-income families offset rising costs heating and cooling their homes.

It includes $2.5 billion in assistance for the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire that burned large swathes of New Mexico this spring, $2 billion in community development block grants for states affected by natural disasters in 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 Florida hurricane currently making its way up the coast, more funding may be needed later this year to help communities recover from hurricanes and violent storms.

The package approved Thursday was formed around a short-term spending bill that must be passed by midnight Friday to keep the federal government open until Dec. 16 as congressional leaders and the Biden administration attempt to reach a spending agreement for the full year.

Using the Interim Spending Bill to give itself a few extra months to keep up with the annual appropriations process is standard practice for Congress, which hasn’t finished its job on time for the last century.

The 72-25 Senate vote on Thursday sends the measure to the US House, where members are expected to approve the package for Biden on Friday. All opposition votes came from Republicans.

Canceled Manchin Plan

The legislation authorized a significant procedural vote earlier this week after Democratic Senator from West Virginia, Joe Manchin III, asked Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to withdraw a reform bill authorizing the energy that the two agreed to add to the must-have package.

Republicans had largely rejected the bill authorizing the energy while Democrats in both houses of Congress criticized both the substance of the bill and the fact that Manchin and Schumer struck a deal to push the measure through Congress. without input from other Democrats.

Both Schumer and Manchin have said they hope to find a way forward for energy licensing legislation before the end of this session of Congress later this year. But this bill would likely need a rewrite to gain the necessary member support.

The spending bill approved Thursday includes more than $12 billion in economic and military aid to Ukraine as the country continues its war against invading Russians through 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 speech on the ground Thursday that US weaponry had helped Ukraine’s military turn the tide against Russia.

“We can’t stop now,” Schumer said.

The package does not 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 Democrat from Vermont, said just before the vote he would push for COVID-19 funding under the full-year government funding package that may pass. in December.

More time for negotiation

The short-term government funding portion of the measure is intended to give Congress and the Biden administration more time to negotiate total discretionary spending levels for fiscal year 2023, which is scheduled 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-related programs. , which include funding for the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and Veterans Affairs.

Republicans scoffed at the defense request, saying it did not increase spending for these programs enough from the current funding of $782 billion.

Many Republican lawmakers also argued that the proposed jump in nondefense funding of $730 billion was a bit too high.

Senate appropriations officer Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama set to retire at the end of this Congress, said he thought there was a good chance both sides would make it through. to an agreement this year.

“A lot of that will come from what we can do with the defense number – if we can solve that problem, I bet we can solve the other one,” Shelby said.

Democratic Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, chair of the subcommittee that funds the Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration and rural development programs, said she expects departures to Leahy and Shelby’s retirement will provide momentum to complete government spending bills during the year. session.

“I think tempers will coalesce and an agreement will be reached after the half-terms,” ​​Baldwin said. “I think that’s when there will be more focus and a month to do it big.”

“You have an outgoing chair and a senior member who really wants to make sure we have an omnibus rather than an ongoing resolution,” she added. “And I think they will commit to it.”

Schumer, a Democrat from New York, said Thursday he hoped congressional leaders could broker a deal for annual appropriations bills this year.

“I hope this is the last CR of Speaker Leahy’s illustrious career, because we’re all hoping an omnibus will be the last funding bill we do later this year,” Schumer said.

Waiting for November

Republican Indiana Sen. Mike Braun, a senior member of the Legislative Branch Finance Committee that provides money to Congress and the Supreme Court, said he expects the dozen or so projects spending bills are coming together faster than the last round, which ended more than five months late. March.

“I think it will probably be done faster than that, but no one has given any indication,” he said.

Braun doesn’t expect congressional leaders and the Biden administration to agree to total spending levels, the first step to drafting bills for the full year, until everyone knows the November midterm election results

“Probably not. I mean, you could do it. But depending on the outcome, you might have to start all over again,” he said.

Once that deal is done, Braun said, he doesn’t expect to be closely involved in the final negotiations on the spending package.

“We usually don’t hear anything until it’s done; mostly behind closed doors and then fell in our laps,” 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. .

“Listen, what I see happening is that once again the so-called management gets together and sets up an omnibus and gives it to us and says, ‘Take it or leave it’,” he said. he declared.

This process, Kennedy said, is “an insult to the American people and a horrible way to put together” the final drafts of the government’s annual funding bills.