WASHINGTON — The Senate inched closer to passing a $1.7 trillion government funding bill Wednesday with supporters pointing to a visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the evening as another reason to advance the measure in a show of support for the beleaguered nation.
The measure includes $44.9 billion in emergency assistance to Ukraine and NATO allies, above even President Joe Biden’s emergency request, and ensures that funding flows to the war effort for months to come. The measure would also boost U.S. defense spending by about 10% to $858 billion, addressing concerns from some lawmakers that more investment in the nation’s military is needed to ensure America’s security.
The Senate could approve the bill as soon as Wednesday. The House will then have to take it up and pass the measure before midnight Friday to avoid a partial-government shutdown.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took to the floor Wednesday urging colleagues to vote for the measure, though they emphasized different priorities.
Schumer said the worst thing Congress could do now is give Russian President Vladimir Putin any signal that the U.S. was wavering in its commitment to defend Ukraine. He also noted that the Senate was voting Wednesday to confirm veteran diplomat Lynne Tracy to be U.S. ambassador to Russia.
“By passing this omnibus and confirming a new ambassador, we can send President Zelenskyy back to Ukraine with the message that the Senate, the Congress and the American people stand unequivocally behind the people of Ukraine,” Schumer said. “And we’re backing that up with real dollars and real resources.”
McConnell is facing pushback from many Republicans who don’t support the spending bill and resent being forced to vote on such a massive package with so little time before a potential shutdown and the Christmas holiday. He highlighted the bill’s spending boost for defense and said that non-defense spending, when excluding a big increase for veterans health care, would not increase at the rate of inflation.
“If Republicans controlled this chamber, we would have handled the appropriations process entirely differently from top to bottom,” McConnell said. “But given the reality of where we stand today, senators have two options this week, just two: we will either give our Armed Forces the resources and the certainty that they need, or we will deny it to them.”
The bill, which runs for 4,155 pages, includes about $772.5 billion for non-defense, discretionary programs and $858 billion for defense and would last through the end of the fiscal year at the end of September.
Lawmakers worked to stuff as many priorities as they could into the sprawling package, likely the last major bill of the current Congress. That includes $27 billion in disaster funding to help communities recovering from disasters and extreme weather events as well as an overhaul of federal election law that aims to prevent any future presidents or presidential candidates from trying to overturn an election.
The bipartisan electoral overhaul was a direct response to former President Donald Trump’s efforts to convince Republican lawmakers and then-Vice President Mike Pence to object to the certification of Biden’s victory on Jan. 6, 2021.
The spending bill also contains scores of policy changes that lawmakers worked furiously to include to avoid having to start over in the new Congress next year.
Examples include a provision from Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., that bans TikTok on government cell phones due to security concerns. Another provision supported by the Maine delegation was added to aid the state’s lobster and Jonah crab fisheries, delaying regulations proposed to help save endangered North Atlantic right whales. And, on the health care front, the bill requires states to keep children enrolled in Medicaid on coverage for at least a year, which advocates say increases access to preventative care.
However, millions who enrolled in the health care program for low-income Americans could start to lose coverage on April 1 because the bill sunsets a requirement of the COVID-19 public health emergency that prohibited states from booting people off Medicaid.
The bill also provides roughly $15.3 billion for more than 7,200 projects that lawmakers sought for their home states and districts. Under revamped rules for community funding projects, also referred to as earmarks, lawmakers must post their funding requests online and attest they have no financial interest in the projects. Still, many fiscal conservatives criticize the earmarking as leading to unnecessary spending.
Lawmakers were negotiating on several amendments Wednesday that lawmakers will be seeking in return for allowing speedier consideration of the bill, which easily cleared its first test vote Tuesday night.
“Nobody wants a shutdown. Nobody benefits from a shutdown. And so I hope nobody here will delay this process to fund government ASAP,” Schumer said.
Some Republican senators are raising objections to the measure, not only because the amount of spending but because of Congress’s habit of placing the various appropriations bills into one massive package long after the fiscal year has begun and just before critical deadlines approach.
“Giving us a bill at 1:28 in the morning, that’s over 4,000 pages, that nobody will have an opportunity to read, that we’ll have no idea what’s in it, is not the way to run your personal life, your business life or your government,” said Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla. “This has to stop.”
House Republicans, including Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the next likely speaker of the House, are encouraging their colleagues in the Senate to only support a short-term extension. That way, they would have more ability to shape the legislation. McCarthy was speaking to senators during their caucus lunch Wednesday. A notice sent by GOP leadership to House members urges them to vote against the measure when it comes to the House.
“This deal is designed to sideline the incoming Republican House Majority by extending many programs for multiple years and providing large funding increases for Democrat priorities on top of the exorbitant spending that has already been appropriated this year,” the notice stated.