US Senate averts shutdown by passing $1.7 trillion spending bill

With government funding set to expire at midnight on Friday US time, the focus now shifts to the Senate, whose approval is needed to avert what would be the third government shutdown of the year.
With government funding set to expire at midnight on Friday US time, the focus now shifts to the Senate, whose approval is needed to avert what would be the third government shutdown of the year.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The US Senate narrowly averted a government shutdown by passing a US$1.3 trillion (S$1.7 trillion) spending bill early on Friday (March 23) that increases military and domestic spending and strengthens background checks for gun buyers.

The 65-32 vote came after Republican conservatives objected to the higher spending and Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky held open the possibility that he'd delay the vote past a Friday midnight deadline that would have triggered a closure.

The House approved the bill on Thursday, and White House budget director Mick Mulvaney told reporters that President Donald Trump would sign the measure, saying it funds his priorities.

The final vote capped a week of all-night bargaining sessions and repeated delays before the measure was introduced on Wednesday night. The bill, funding the government through to September, attracted bipartisan support while conservatives complained about growing budget deficits and a lack of time to review the 2,232-page measure.

Republicans praised an US$80 billion increase in military spending while Democrats highlighted an additional US$63 billion in domestic spending.

Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican who opposed the bill and flirted with the prospect of forcing a government shutdown by delaying a vote, said the price tag was too high.

"It sucks," Kennedy said of the spending measure. "No thought whatsoever to adding over a trillion dollars in debt."

Paul did not follow through on his suggestion that he might delay the proceedings, relenting late on Thursday night. "I'm still strongly opposed, but if you don't have the votes at some point you do have to acknowledge defeat," he said.

There was, however, a brief drama that threatened to keep the chamber from voting when Senator James Risch, an Idaho Republican, objected that one of the provisions in the massive piece of legislation renamed a wilderness preserve in his state for Cecil Andrus, a Democratic governor of Idaho and secretary of the Interior under President Jimmy Carter. Andrus, who died last year, and Risch were political rivals.

The measure, H.R. 1625, includes US$1.6 billion for border security, including money for fencing and levees, though that's only a fraction of the US$25 billion that Trump wanted to build a wall between the US and Mexico.

The bill has a provision creating incentives to bolster reporting by federal agencies to the database for gun-buyer background checks, as well as US$21 billion for infrastructure projects and an additional US$4 billion to combat opioid addiction.

One of the biggest obstacles to reaching the agreement was the status of funding for a Hudson River tunnel between New York and New Jersey. Advocates, mainly Democrats and Republicans representing the two states, argued it is one of the most important infrastructure projects in the US. But Trump has insisted on removing money for the project, known as Gateway, from the spending plan.

The spending agreement omits language steering money to the Gateway project, although the project could get about half the funds supporters are seeking - US$540 million - through other accounts, according to Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat. Additional funding would be available to the project through Amtrak and grants that don't require approval from the Department of Transportation, Schumer and other Gateway advocates said.

The legislation includes several provisions in response to recent mass shootings. In addition to incentives for reporting to a database for gun-buyer background checks, it permits the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research the causes of gun violence, after more than 20 years of restrictions that prevented the agency from doing so.

Also included is US$75 million this year to train teachers and school officials to respond to attacks, pay for metal detectors and other equipment, and create anonymous systems for reporting possible threats to schools. Between 2019 and 2028, US$100 million a year would be provided.

The bill would contain funding to combat Russian interference in this year's elections, and it would provide more than US$600 million to build a new rural broadband network.

Also included is a modification to the new tax-cut law passed last December that was sought by some agricultural groups. The current law contains a provision that promoted sales to farm co-ops at the expense of grain companies. In exchange, Democrats won a provision bolstering low-income housing tax credits.

With members of Congress focused on campaigning for November elections, the spending bill is likely to be the last major piece of legislation until then.