Omnibus spending package reflects shaky detente in Trump’s final chapter

Massive bill maintains status quo on border, immigration policy, nods to fiscal concerns around use of emergency funds

From left, Senate Appropriations chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., House Appropriations chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., House Appropriations ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas, and Senate Appropriations ranking member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., talk  on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
From left, Senate Appropriations chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., House Appropriations chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., House Appropriations ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas, and Senate Appropriations ranking member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., talk on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 21, 2020 at 5:12pm

The $1.4 trillion omnibus spending agreement lawmakers released Monday includes many of the delicate compromises that have kept the government functioning during Donald Trump’s presidency, but leave both sides somewhat dissatisfied.

Funding for the border wall and a cap on Immigrations and Customs Enforcement’s detention capacity remained about equal to prior years, while the White House maintained its ability to move money from certain accounts to the wall or to boost detention in times of border “surges.”

Democrats weren’t able to include language that would have undone many of the Trump administration’s policies on health care funding, environmental programs or renaming military installations honoring Confederates, but it’s likely the incoming Biden administration will start that process in less than a month. The annual defense policy bill, which Trump has said he will veto, also includes language requiring the Defense Department to rename the bases.

And funding for a program that lets veterans see private doctors closer to home will continue being funded under regular discretionary spending caps after a months-long battle that pit House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy against Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., and numerous Democrats.

Appropriators in both chambers initially agreed to simply designate the full $12.5 billion extra needed for fiscal 2021 as emergency spending, letting them use up valuable space within tight budget caps for other programs.

But McCarthy balked, and with a nod from the White House, appropriators instead found most of the money by dipping deeper into unused children’s health insurance program funds to offset the new veterans health care spending.

The remaining offsets were largely found by designating $2.3 billion in Energy Department science funds as emergency spending, but paying for that add-on by rescinding unspent money in two Obama-era loan programs also funded with emergency appropriations. The combined effect was to lower the Energy-Water bill's regular allocation by the same amount, freeing up more room within this year's nondefense cap.

And despite an agreement to drop about $233 billion in other emergency spending initially added to their bills by House Democrats, appropriators wound up sprinkling in some coronavirus-related emergency funds, like $604 million for Justice Department costs and $638 million for low-income drinking water and wastewater treatment grants.

The House is expected to take two votes on the package Monday. The chamber’s leaders plan to use a procedural tactic to allow lawmakers to cast one vote on the fiscal 2021 Commerce-Justice-Science, Defense, Financial Services and Homeland Security bills and another vote on the eight remaining spending measures as well as the $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill and additional legislation.

The massive bill will then go to the Senate for one final vote before heading to Trump’s desk for a signature.

To provide time for the 5,593-page bill to be processed, the House rule that governs floor debate will provide a seven-day stopgap spending bill to avoid any possible hiccups in government funding when a one-day continuing resolution expires Monday at midnight. Once the House adopts the rule the backstop will go to the Senate for a vote.

Harbor projects, Middle East peace

The package includes several big-ticket items that lawmakers have been working for on months or even years. The largest of which is a nearly $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill that includes substantial emergency appropriations, including  money for local school systems and colleges and universities, vaccine distribution, public transit agencies and more.

The package carries a water resources infrastructure bill that in future years will effectively allow appropriators to allocate more funds to Army Corps of Engineers harbor dredging projects. That’s a longtime priority of Shelby, who hasn't said whether he’ll run for reelection in 2022.

The measure caps off House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey’s congressional career, which began in 1989. The New Yorker, who’s led panel Democrats since 2013, is retiring when the session ends and handing the gavel to Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. 

The final package includes one monument to a longtime goal of Lowey’s: ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It would establish a new Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Fund, with an initial $50 million authorized to help set up joint economic development projects.

The expansive bill, which Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said was the largest he’s seen since coming to Congress in 1997, also includes a huge range of unrelated legislation tacked on at the end ⚊ provisions that appropriators have long referred to as “ash and trash.” The measure would reauthorize intelligence community programs; restrict the sale of e-cigarettes to minors; establish a Smithsonian Women’s History Museum and the National Museum of the American Latino and much, much more.

The appropriations process was derailed over the summer when, for the first time since at least 1945, Senate appropriators decided not to mark up any of their bills in committee. That move was precipitated in part by a pre-election dispute over whether the panel would debate policing overhaul measures after the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by Minneapolis police.

Democrats also wanted to add emergency pandemic relief funding that Republicans said didn’t belong in the regular spending bills.

“I will not allow the appropriations process to be hijacked and turned into a partisan sideshow,” Shelby said in a statement at the time. Senate Appropriations ranking member Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and other Democrats accused Republicans of stifling debate for their own political purposes, arguing broader national issues almost always find their way into federal funding discussions.

The final package includes new language encouraging federal law enforcement agencies to report use of force incidents to a central federal database, but doesn’t require them to do so and they wouldn’t face federal funding restrictions if they don’t.

House Democrats included legislation in their initial Commerce-Justice-Science bill that would have made certain federal grants contingent on police departments eliminating chokeholds and “no knock” warrants for drug cases as well as instating training programs on de-escalation, eliminating racial profiling and use of force. That was removed from the final package.

The House committee was able to mark up all dozen of their bills in July with the House passing 10 of those bills across the floor. The Homeland Security and Legislative Branch bills were held back over concerns Democrats didn’t have the votes needed to pass the legislation.

Social justice issues are unlikely to be absent from the appropriations process next year.

The Senate Appropriations Committee could also struggle with whether to take up amendments changing or removing the so-called Hyde amendment. House Democrats are expected to remove the prohibition on federal funding for abortion with exceptions for rape, incest, or the woman's life from their Labor-HHS-Education spending bill next year.

Appropriators in both chambers also will have to wrestle with how to handle the possible return of two things that have been absent from the process for roughly a decade. House Democrats seem set on bringing back home-state earmarks in spending bills, something Republicans have been quiet about.

[Hoyer: Earmarks are likely coming back next year]

And for the first time since 2011, there won’t be any statutory spending caps, which means the Budget committees in both chambers may be in charge of settling on a compromise figure for appropriators to divvy up. 

Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.