House passes US$788 billion spending bill with border-wall funds

A Mexican family stands next to the border wall between Mexico and the United States, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on May 23, 2017.
A Mexican family stands next to the border wall between Mexico and the United States, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on May 23, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The House passed a US$788 billion (S$1.07 trillion) spending bill on Thursday (July 27) that complies with President Donald Trump's demands to boost the military, reduce clean-energy programs and start funding a wall on the US-Mexico border.

The bill, passed 235-192, would fund the departments of Defence, Energy and Veterans Affairs, the legislative branch and Army Corps of Engineers in fiscal 2018. Republican leaders added US$1.6 billion in border-wall funding to win the backing of House conservatives.

The bill, H.R. 3219, has little chance of passing the Senate in its current form. Senate Democrats, whose votes would be needed for passage, intend to block it in the hopes of a deal later this year to increase domestic spending. The bill does, however, set up a bargaining position for House Republicans heading into possible spending talks with Democrats.

"You've got a unified position in the House and that's a good place to be right now," said Representative Mac Thornberry, the chairman of the House defence panel.

No schedule for bipartisan budget talks has been set and it is unclear whether Congress can avoid a government shutdown when the fiscal year begins Oct 1. By including border-wall funding that alienates Democrats, Republicans have increased the risk that Congress will be unable to complete the spending bills on time.

That would either lead to a partial shutdown of government services or require Congress to pass a stop-gap spending measure. Trump has said a "good" shutdown may be needed to secure funding for the wall.

Florida Representative Tom Rooney, a Republican member of the House spending panel, said he fears the current strategy will lead to a stopgap spending bill in late September that would continue current spending levels and policies."The lowest common denominator always prevails around here," Rooney said.

New York Representative Nita Lowey, the top Democrat on the spending panel, also said Congress would likely have to pass a stop-gap bill into December because the bill cannot win bipartisan support.

"You can call it kicking the can down the road, you can call it whatever you want," Lowey said. "This is not the way to do business."

Rooney and other Republicans had initially hoped to vote on a legislative package combining all 12 of the annual spending bills. He said that would give House Republicans the upper hand in any shutdown situation because they could argue they did their work to fund the government.

In that scenario, Senate Democrats "would get the blame for any shutdown," Rooney said.

Republican members weren't willing to back the 12-bill package. Moderates said the eight bills not in Thursday's package would impose US$8 billion in cuts to domestic agencies from current levels, while some conservatives wanted deeper cuts.

Moderate Republican Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania said the House couldn't pass a bill based on those levels. "That's why we need a bipartisan budget agreement," he said.

The vote allows Republicans heading into a five-week recess to tell constituents they worked to fulfill campaign promises to increase funding for the Pentagon and border security.  It also represents a unifying moment for a divided Republican House conference, sealed in part by a decision by Trump to bar transgender people from military service. That ended a conservative rebellion against the bill over funding for medical care for transgender troops.

The bill includes a US$72 billion increase for defence. It would provide US$9.5 billion for 84 Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 aircraft, while the Pentagon requested 70. The measure proposes US$1.8 billion for 24 Boeing Co. F/A-18E/F Super Hornet aircraft, an increase of 10 planes over the Trump budget. It also includes funding for three Littoral Combat Ships, made in competing versions by Lockheed Martin and Austal USA.

The House adopted a provision that would prohibit the Trump administration from starting another round of military base closures. The Pentagon had asked to start a new round in fiscal year 2021. The amendment was sponsored by Republicans John Ratcliffe of Texas and Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania.

The Pentagon would be prohibited from providing arms, training or other assistance to the Azov Battalion in Ukraine. The Azov Civic Corps is a Ukrainian ultranationalist movement linked to a regiment fighting Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. The amendment was authored by Michigan Democrat John Conyers, Florida Republican Ted Yoho and California Democrat Ro Khanna.

Oshkosh Corp. would see an increase of US$30 million for its Joint Light Tactical Vehicle programme. Oshkosh is headquartered in Wisconsin, the home state of Republican Glenn Grothman, the author of the amendment.

The US$37.6 billion energy part of the spending bill would cut the non-military part of the Energy Department by US$1.7 billion. That level is still US$2.3 billion more than Trump requested in his budget. The bill would cut the Energy Department's clean-energy research division and kill off the agency's loan-guarantee programme for energy companies. Provisions in the bill could boost the nuclear industry's long quest to open a nuclear waste facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.