The Washington Times: Senate passes $857 billion spending bill

Posted on August 23, 2018

The Washington Times: Senate passes $857 billion spending bill

By David Sherfinski

August 23, 2018


The Senate passed a massive $857 billion bill Thursday to fund the Defense, Labor, Education, and Health departments next year, pressing to avert a shutdown showdown ahead of the next deadline at the end of September.

Lawmakers said it was the latest evidence of a new, bipartisan approach to keeping the government running, while acknowledging tough negotiations ahead to get final deals with the House.

The Senate has now passed nine of the 12 spending bills for 2019, and the House has passed six.

“Boy Scouts shouldn’t get a merit badge for telling the truth, and United States senators shouldn’t get an award for passing appropriations bills,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican. “But I think it is worth noticing that this is the largest number of appropriations bills passed before August since the year 2000.”

Thursday’s bill provides about $607 billon in base discretionary spending for the Defense Department in fiscal year 2019, plus $68 billion for a special war fund that’s not subject to strict spending caps.

The bill also provides about $180 billion in discretionary spending for the Department of Health and Human Services, the Labor Department, and the Education Department.

Among the increases are $39.1 billion for the National Institutes of Health, a $2 billion boost from the current year, $500 million more for education priorities such as charter schools and engineering and math programs, and $3.7 billion to combat the opioid epidemic — an increase of about $145 million.

The House has passed a defense spending bill but hasn’t passed its version of the Labor-Health-Education bill, complicating future negotiations.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, Alabama Republican, said he’d like to start working out compromises soon, but that’s difficult right now because the House is on a five-week vacation.

“We need the House to get back here,” he said.

He said he wants to keep the defense bill coupled with the Labor-Health-Education bill — the two largest of the dozen annual bills — because of the balance. Conservatives vote for the Pentagon money, while liberals back the domestic funding.

Rep. Charles Fleischmann, Tennessee Republican, said lawmakers plan to take stock in early September of what they think they can realistically get to the president’s desk by the end of the month and then try to go from there.

“If we’re not able to do that, my gut feeling is possibly a short-term [bill] until after the elections,” Mr. Fleischmann said this week on Fox Business Network. “I think the most important thing we want to avoid right now is a government shutdown.”

Mr. Alexander said negotiators plan to hit the ground running after Labor Day on a bill combining funding for programs in energy and water, military construction and veterans affairs.

Those negotiations had hit snags over items including veterans health care and the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada, but Mr. Alexander said lawmakers were closing in on a deal that could potentially clear the way for votes the week of Sept. 3.

In some areas, agreement is proving elusive.

House and Senate leaders have already indicated they won’t be able to settle tough fights like funding for President Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall before the Sept. 30 deadline. They’ll instead rely on short-term legislation to keep parts of the government open.

Mr. Trump has threatened multiple times in recent weeks to shut down the government if he doesn’t get enough funding for his long promised border wall.

Senators said the president could poison negotiations in other ways, too — for example if he follows through on an idea to freeze $3 billion in foreign aid money without an opportunity for Congress to block the move.

Lawmakers of both parties criticized the idea as an end-run around Congress’s appropriation authority, and said it could derail a carefully negotiated deal earlier this year to lift defense and domestic spending caps.

Sen. Chris Murphy, the top Democrat on a legislative branch spending subcommittee, said such a move could blow up whatever trust the parties have managed to develop on spending issues this year.

“I don’t know why I’d ever do a deal on my subcommittee in appropriations if the administration and the Republicans in Congress don’t stick to the deal,” he said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham said Mr. Trump would also “destroy” the chance for cooperation on getting his nominations through Congress.

“There’d be a bipartisan backlash — it’s a bad idea,” said the South Carolina Republican.