US lawmakers passes $2 trillion spending Bill as Democrats drop Covid-19 aid

The decision to strip out the coronavirus money came amid disputes about its cost. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The US House of Representatives on Wednesday (March 9) passed a sprawling federal spending Bill that includes a huge infusion of aid for war-torn Ukraine and money to keep the government funded through September, after jettisoning a package to fund President Joe Biden’s new Covid-19 response effort.

Bipartisan approval of the first major government spending legislation of Mr Biden’s presidency marked the first time since he took office that Democrats were able to use their congressional majorities and control of the White House to set funding levels for their priorities, including climate resilience, public education and child care.  

But the exclusion of the US$15.6 billion (S$21.19 billion) pandemic aid package, amid disputes about its cost that threatened to derail the broader legislation, infuriated the White House and frustrated Democratic leaders, leaving the fate of the Biden administration’s coronavirus strategy uncertain. 

 The president’s team has said it is in urgent need of funding for testing, therapeutics, vaccines and efforts to stop new variants.

Officials had initially suggested they needed as much as US$30 billion before requesting US$22.5 billion, an amount that got whittled down in negotiations with Republicans, who resisted spending any new federal money on the pandemic.

In response, top Democrats had agreed to take the funding from existing programmes, including US$7 billion set aside under last year's US$1.9 trillion coronavirus aid law to help state governments.

But that approach drew a backlash from many Democrats and governors in both parties, outraged at the idea of clawing back assistance that states had been counting on.

Not long after the 2,700-page spending Bill was released early Wednesday and just hours before a scheduled vote, a number of Democrats privately registered their dismay with party leaders, raising the prospect that the entire package could collapse for lack of support. The dispute froze activity on the floor for hours as top Democrats rushed to salvage the spending measure.

By mid-afternoon, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California notified Democrats in a brief letter that the coronavirus money would be dropped.

"It is heartbreaking to remove the Covid funding, and we must continue to fight for urgently needed Covid assistance, but unfortunately that will not be included in this Bill," Ms Pelosi wrote.

The episode underscored the deep and persistent political divides over the pandemic, and the federal government's role in responding to it. But it also demonstrated that as infections and deaths subside, Covid-19 is no longer the dominant priority in Washington.

Instead, the spending measure was fuelled in large part by strong bipartisan support for a US$13.6 billion aid package to help Ukraine as it endures a brutal invasion by Russia, and by the determination of Democrats to finally see their funding priorities enshrined in law more than a year after Mr Biden took office.

In addition to adding billions of dollars to the federal budget, the sprawling spending Bill achieves a number of Democratic priorities, including long-awaited reauthorisation of the Violence Against Women Act and clarifying that federal regulatory jurisdiction extends to vaping and synthetic tobacco.

"For the first time in a long time, I believe we show just how government can work for working people once again and to achieve the betterment of humankind," said Representative Rosa DeLauro,  chair of the House Appropriations Committee. 

Lawmakers more than doubled what the Biden administration requested in emergency aid for Ukraine, sending about US$6.5 billion to the Pentagon for military assistance and about US$6.7 billion in humanitarian and economic aid to help both refugees and those who remained in the country.

Overall, the measure would significantly increase federal spending, setting aside US$730 billion for domestic programmes and US$782 billion for the military.

Democrats hailed a US$46 billion increase in domestic spending, which they said was the largest in four years. And Republicans crowed that they had resisted a liberal push to reduce Pentagon spending and maintained a number of longtime policy provisions, like the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for most abortions.

The House passed the measure in two pieces, allowing members of each party to support the initiatives they favoured.

The military and homeland security spending passed 361-69, while the domestic spending passed 260-171, with one lawmaker, Representative Rashida Tlaib, voting present.

The Bill now goes to the Senate. 

"This compromise is not the Bill that Republicans would have written on our own," Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, said in a statement. "But I am proud of the major concessions we have extracted from this all-Democrat government."

The military spending reflects priorities Mr Biden mentioned in his State of the Union address, such as increased funding to help Ukraine and bolster the defence of the Baltic States.

Billions of dollars for long-term goals of building additional ships and aircraft would be funded, including 13 new Navy vessels, a dozen F/A-18 Super Hornets and 85 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

The bill would also provide US$5 million for what it calls "ex gratia" payments to the survivors of the Aug 29 drone strike on a family in Kabul, Afghanistan, which the Pentagon admitted was a mistake that killed 10 civilians, including seven children, after an investigation by The New York Times.

It also would provide a 2.7 per cent pay raise for all 2.1 million uniformed service members as well as the approximately 750,000 civilian employees of the Defence Department, and includes nearly US$400 million more than Mr Biden had requested to increase housing and food subsidies for military families in response to rising prices.

A House summary said the Bill would provide more than US$1.6 billion to promote a "free and open Indo-Pacific" and to counter the growing influence of the Chinese government in "developing countries," as the Biden administration seeks to check China's growing power.

Democrats also won increases for domestic programmes they have long championed, such as school grants, the Head Start programme, Pell grants and efforts to counter the opioid epidemic. The measure also would dedicate US$12.5 million to "firearm injury and mortality prevention research."

In anticipation of another year of high migrant traffic at the south-western border, lawmakers designated an additional US$1.45 billion for Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help with personnel overtime costs, medical care for migrants and funding for non-profit groups that shelter migrants once they are released from border custody.

The measure also would give the Internal Revenue Service a US$675 million increase, its largest in more than two decades.

Passage of the legislation would also unlock some funding first outlined in last year's US$1 trillion infrastructure law, a key priority for lawmakers in both parties. The Bill also includes significant increases in funding for climate resilience, an area that already received US$50 billion in new money in the infrastructure package.

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