US Congress approves massive funding Bills to avert government shutdowns

The Pentagon would get US$738 billion for military activities - US$22 billion more than last year. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The United States Senate, rushing to meet a looming deadline, approved and sent to President Donald Trump a US$1.4 trillion (S$1.9 trillion) package of fiscal 2020 spending Bills that would end prospect of government shutdowns at week's end when temporary funding expires.

By strong bipartisan margins and with White House backing, the Senate passed the two gigantic funding Bills for government programmes through Sept 30.

Mr Trump is expected to sign both Bills into law before a midnight Friday deadline.

Notably, the Pentagon would get US$738 billion for military activities - US$22 billion more than last year.

Investments in domestic programmes range from child nutrition and college grants to research on gun violence for the first time in decades and money for affordable housing programmes that Mr Trump had opposed.

The legislation also contains a series of new initiatives, including funding for Mr Trump's military Space Force, raising the age for purchasing tobacco products to 21 from the current 18, and repealing some taxes that were intended to fund the Affordable Care Act health insurance, popularly known as Obamacare.

About a year ago, the US government plunged into a record-long, 35-day partial shutdown after Congress refused to give Mr Trump the money he wanted to build a US-Mexico border wall - one that he previously insisted Mexico would finance.

This time around, money for border security would stay level at US$1.37 billion, far below what Mr Trump had sought.

Earlier this year, angered by Congress' refusal to give him the wall money, Mr Trump declared an "emergency" and took funds from other accounts appropriated by Congress and used them to build part of the border wall that was a central promise of his 2016 presidential campaign.

Congressional and White House negotiators reached a deal on the spending bills to avert government shutdowns just days before Washington plunged into a different kind of political crisis: the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives approving articles of impeachment against Mr Trump, a Republican.

With Democrats and Republicans trying to demonstrate that they can get at least some legislative work done amid Mr Trump's impeachment, the administration and Democrats also worked out differences over a US-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement, making for a flurry of pre-Christmas break action in Washington.

The US$1.4 trillion in spending for so-called "discretionary" programmes, up from US$1.36 trillion last year, is separate from"mandatory" programmes like Social Security retirement benefits, which are automatically funded.

The higher spending, coupled with tax cuts enacted in 2017, are contributing to widening budget deficits. The government spent US$984 billion more than it took in during the last fiscal year that ended on Sept 30, and the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projects annual budget deficits averaging US$1.2 trillion over the next decade.

A rapidly rising US national debt now stands at US$23.1 trillion, a level that some experts fear could eventually hobble the economy.

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