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US Congress approves US$1.3t spending bill, averts third shutdown of the year
[WASHINGTON] Congress gave swift approval to a US$1.3 trillion spending bill that will keep the federal government open through September but broadly defies the Trump administration's wishes to reshape it.
The House voted 256-167 to approve the bill early Thursday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the spending plan, which stretched 2,232 pages, had been unveiled.
After a scare over whether a fiscally conservative senator might force a brief government shutdown this weekend, along with an unexpected grievance from another senator over the renaming of an Idaho wilderness area, the Senate voted 65-32 to approve the bill around 12.30 Friday morning.
Government funding was set to expire Friday night, but by approving the bill, lawmakers moved to avert what would have been the third shutdown of the year.
The spending bill, which congressional leaders agreed to on Wednesday and President Donald Trump seemed to grudgingly endorse on Twitter, provides big increases to the military and to domestic programmes - and clearly rebuffs the Trump administration's efforts to sharply scale back the reach and scope of the federal government.
The bill funds the government for the 2018 fiscal year, which began Oct 1 and is already almost halfway over. Congress paved the way for this week's legislation with a two-year budget deal last month that raised strict limits on military and domestic spending by about US$140 billion this year.
In dividing up the spoils of that budget agreement, Congress broadly rebuked the Trump administration's initial vision for the federal government in many ways.
The president's desire to drastically cut spending on the environment was rebuffed. Programmes like the National Endowment for the Arts and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, far from being eliminated, were spared any reductions.
Not only did the administration's request for deep cuts to the National Institutes of Health go nowhere, but Congress gave the agency an additional US$3 billion.
"Sometimes you save the president from themselves," said Oklahoma Representative Tom Cole, chairman of the House Appropriations sub-committee that funds the health institutes.
The spending bill "repudiates the abysmal Trump budget, investing robustly in critical priorities like child care; transportation infrastructure; national security; election protection; medical research; opioid abuse, prevention and treatment; veterans' health services; and much more," said Representative Nita Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.
At the White House, Mr Trump's top advisers worked to put the best face on a package they conceded fell short of fully funding his priorities and contained many items he would rather not have accepted.
"In order to get the defence spending, primarily, but all the rest of our priorities funded, we had to give away a lot of stuff that we didn't want to give away" to Democrats, Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, told reporters during a briefing where he also highlighted funding in important areas like the military, school safety,border security and combating the opioid crisis.
"My job is to get the president's priorities funded, which this does," added Mr Mulvaney, a onetime budget hawk in Congress who routinely voted against large spending packages and sidestepped a question on whether he would have done so for the measure now before lawmakers.
"The president wants it to pass and wants it to be signed."
But the bill landed with a thud among conservatives who are still on Capitol Hill. The House Freedom Caucus, whose founding members included Mr Mulvaney, formally opposed it and sent a letter to Mr Trump urging him to reject it.
Another founding member of the Freedom Caucus, Ohio Representative Jim Jordan, said the spending bill was "maybe the worst bill I've ever seen" and recalled the 2016 election that put Republicans in full control of Washington.
"Nov 8, 2016, I doubt that the voters were saying, 'Put Republicans in power so that they can pass a bill that continues to fund sanctuary cities, continues to fund Planned Parenthood,'" he said. "Really? Really? That's what the election was about?"
Among other things, the bill includes US$1.6 billion for more than 90 miles of physical barriers along the border with Mexico, as well as related technology. But that sum is far short of what Mr Trump would need to construct the expansive border wall that he promised in his campaign for president.
The bill does not address the fate of young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children and have been shielded from deportation by an Obama-era programme, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or Daca, that Mr Trump moved last year to end.
As November's midterm elections loom, the spending bill allows lawmakers from both parties to go home and claim success on a wide range of issues, including beefing up the military and providing much-needed funding for priorities such as combating the opioid crisis and rebuilding crumbling infrastructure.
But to some frustrated lawmakers, the heft of the spending bill was the very problem.
"Every Republican would vote against this disgusting pork bill if a Democrat were president," said Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse.
"This spending kegger is a wildly irresponsible use of the taxpayers' money, and the president should not sign it."
That additional spending comes at the expense of adding even further to the national debt, which has topped US$21 trillion. The growing debt has seemed of minimal concern on Capitol Hill in recent months; Republicans passed a sweeping tax overhaul late last year that will also result in piling up more debt.
Aside from the bill's contents, the process for approving it this week left bruised feelings as well, as the bill was not made public until Wednesday night.
"In all honesty, none of us know what is actually in this bill," Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern said Thursday morning, just hours before House members were asked to vote on it.
Although the bill's eventual approval in the Senate was never in doubt, it was unclear for hours on Thursday whether the chamber would be able to hold a quick vote on the legislation.
If a senator insisted, he or she could have blocked the Senate from voting until early Saturday, causing a brief shutdown of the government. In a similar situation last month, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul did exactly that, raising concerns that he could take another stand this week.
Mr Paul made clear in recent days that he disapproved of both the process for jamming the spending bill through Congress as well as the substance of the legislation.
"I'm upset that we're spending like every Democrat that we criticised," he said this week.
On Thursday, he fumed about the bill in a series of Twitter posts, offering observations as he made his way through the legislation, which he said took more than two hours to print in his office.
But Mr Paul did not end up forcing the issue.
"Victory for conservatives today is that all of America now knows what a budget busting bomb this bill is," he wrote on Twitter.
Late Thursday night, another hiccup emerged: Idaho Senator Jim Risch was unhappy with a measure that had been tucked into the spending bill renaming the White Clouds Wilderness in his state, according to Senate aides.
The wilderness will be named for Cecil Dale Andrus, a four-term governor of Idaho who was interior secretary under President Jimmy Carter.
Mr Andrus died last year, and, according to Senate aides, Mr Risch objected to the provision affixing his name to the wilderness.
Mr Risch ultimately allowed the Senate to vote, and he would not speak to reporters afterward. But his protest appeared to be in vain. John Cornyn of Texas, the no 2 Senate Republican, told reporters that the renaming of the wilderness area would not be undone.