House approves $1.2 trillion package of spending bills

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., speaks at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 20, 2024. The race is on for Congress to pass the final spending package for the current budget year and push any threats of a government shutdown to the fall. With spending set to expire for several key federal agencies at midnight Friday, the House and Senate are expected to take up a $1.2 trillion measure that combines six annual spending bills into one package.(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
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By KEVIN FREKING

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House approved a $1.2 trillion package of spending bills on Friday just a few hours before funding for some key federal agencies is set to expire, a long overdue action nearly six months into the budget year that will push any threats of a government shutdown to the fall.

The bill passed by a vote of 286-134 and now moves to the Senate, where leadership hopes for a final vote later Friday. More than 70% of the money would go to defense.

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., brought the bill up under a streamlined process that required two-thirds support for approval. The vote was exceedingly tight, a reflection of anger among Republicans over the content of the package and the speed with which it was brought to a vote.

Signaling more trouble ahead, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., initiated an effort to oust Johnson as the House began the vote but held off on further action until the House returns in two weeks. It’s the same tool that was used last year to remove the last Republican speaker, Kevin McCarthy of California.

The vote breakdown showed 101 Republicans voting for the bill and 112 voting against it. Meanwhile, 185 Democrats voted for the bill and 22 against.

Lawmakers could still miss the midnight deadline for funding the government as action in the Senate could take time. But the practical impact in the near term would be minimal. With most federal workers off duty over the weekend and many government services funded through earlier legislation, a shutdown would mostly pass without incident unless matters dragged into Monday.

“Democrats and Republicans have about 13 hours to work together to make sure the government stays open. That’s not going to be easy,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said as the Senate opened for business. “We will have to work together — and avoid unnecessary delays.”

Johnson broke up this fiscal year’s spending bills into two parts as House Republicans revolted against what has become an annual practice of asking them to vote for one massive, complex bill called an omnibus with little time to review it or face a shutdown. Johnson viewed that as a breakthrough, calling the bill “the best achievable outcome in a divided government.”

Still, the package was clearly unpopular with most Republicans, who viewed it as containing too few of their policy priorities and as spending too much.

“The bottom line is that this is a complete and utter surrender,” said Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Mo.

The opponents particularly took issue with fellow Republicans voting for the bill and the actions of House GOP leadership. Rep. Andy Ogles, R-Tenn., went so far as to say “it’s clear that the Democrats own the speaker’s gavel.”

It’s taken lawmakers six months into the current fiscal year to get near the finish line on government funding, the process slowed by conservatives who pushed for more policy mandates and steeper spending cuts than a Democratic-led Senate or White House would consider. The impasse required several short-term, stopgap spending bills to keep agencies funded as negotiations continued.

Rep. Kay Granger, the Republican chair of the House Appropriations Committee, stepped down from that role after the vote. She said she would stay on the committee to provide advice and lead as a teacher for colleagues when needed.

Democratic leaders sold the bill to members by emphasizing that they were able to hold the line against hundreds of policy mandates and deep spending cuts.

“This is a good result for the American people in terms of standing up for their health, their safety, their education, their national security protection and of course, above all else, their economic well-being,” Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries said.

The first package of full-year spending bills, which funded the departments of Veterans Affairs, Agriculture and the Interior, among others, cleared Congress two weeks ago with just hours to spare before funding expired for those agencies.

When combining the two packages, discretionary spending for the budget year will come to about $1.66 trillion. That does not include programs such as Social Security and Medicare, or financing the country’s rising debt.

To win over support from Republicans, Johnson touted some of the spending increases secured for about 8,000 more detention beds for migrants awaiting their immigration proceedings or removal from the country. That’s about a 24% increase from current levels. Also, GOP leadership highlighted more money to hire about 2,000 Border Patrol agents.

After the vote, having clearly heard his right flank’s concerns, Johnson said he would be in active discussions over the next two weeks on a plan to highlight differences between the two parties on “the catastrophe at the Southern border that is killing countless Americans.” He said bills would be introduced to fix the problem.

Democrats, meanwhile, are boasting of a $1 billion increase for Head Start programs and new child care centers for military families. They also played up a $120 million increase in funding for cancer research and a $100 million increase for Alzheimer’s research.

“Make no mistake, we had to work under very difficult top-line numbers and fight off literally hundreds of extreme Republican poison pills from the House, not to mention some unthinkable cuts,” said Sen. Patty Murray, the Democratic chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “But at the end of the day this is a bill that will keep our country and our families moving forward.”

Sen. Susan Collins, the top Republican on that committee, appealed to her GOP colleagues by stating that the bill’s spending on non-defense programs actually decreases even before accounting for inflation. She called the package “conservative” and “carefully drafted.”

“These bills are not big spending bills that are wildly out of scope,” Collins said.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called on the Senate to pass the spending bill as quickly as possible.

“This bill is a compromise,” she said. “No side got everything it wanted.”

The spending in the bill largely tracks with an agreement that then-Speaker McCarthy worked out with the White House in May 2023, which restricted spending for two years and suspended the debt ceiling into January 2025 so the federal government could continue paying its bills.

Shalanda Young, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, told lawmakers that last year’s agreement, which became the Fiscal Responsibility Act, will save the federal government about $1 trillion over the coming decade.

Members of both parties expressed frustration with how long the process has taken and how the end result was what so many had predicted. They warned all along that Republicans would not get the vast majority of policy mandates they were seeking or cut spending further than what McCarthy and the White House had agreed upon last year.

“People were living in a dream world thinking, ‘Well, we’re going to something different than what McCarthy had an agreement with the president on,'” said Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb.