Congress

House sends spending caps, debt limit bill to Senate

Measure next heads to the Senate for consideration

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leads House Democrats down the House steps to hold a news conference on the first 200 days of the 116th Congress on Thursday, July 25, 2019. On Thursday, the House passed a debt limit and budget measure, sending it to the Senate for consideration. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

After late lobbying from President Donald Trump, House leaders mustered the votes to pass a two-year spending caps and debt limit bill Thursday that will provide some structure around the appropriations process and stave off potential default on U.S. obligations until the end of 2021.

The 284-149 vote was the first legislative test for the package Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced Monday after hard-fought negotiations. The measure would add $324 billion to otherwise austere spending caps over the next two fiscal years, and avert cuts averaging about 10 percent to federal agencies for the upcoming budget year starting Oct. 1.

[Trump, Democrats split differences in two-year budget deal]

Trump’s signature on the bill, assuming the Senate passes it next week as expected, would lower the temperature a bit on deadline-driven fiscal battles during next year’s election campaign. And it would take a market-rattling debt ceiling fight off the table until either Trump’s second term or a new president’s first term.

“House Republicans should support the TWO YEAR BUDGET AGREEMENT which greatly helps our Military and our Vets. I am totally with you!” Trump tweeted Thursday morning. 

Conservatives have sharply criticized the deal, however, including two House factions that have been closely aligned with Trump, the Freedom Caucus and Republican Study Committee. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy predicted most Republicans wouldn’t support the agreement, despite Trump’s backing.

“I don’t believe we’ll get half of our conference to support this,” the California Republican told reporters before the vote.

Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who met with Trump on Wednesday, said he counseled GOP officials to simply attach the debt limit suspension to a stopgap funding bill extending current-year spending levels, which would have saved roughly $44 billion over the course of the next fiscal year. But Meadows ultimately didn’t launch a full-court press to tank the deal that Trump was supporting.

“I think the easiest thing to have done would have been to do a debt ceiling increase with the [continuing resolution], and we would have been better off,” Meadows said Thursday. “But, I lost that argument.”

In the end, 132 Republicans and 16 Democrats voted against the package, for very different reasons. Left-leaning lawmakers voiced frustration that the bill doesn’t rein in a "bloated" defense budget, but the endorsement of Progressive Caucus leaders Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Mark Pocan, D-Wis., while tepid, helped bolster support on the Democratic side.

Not a ‘perfect’ bill

“Is this bill a perfect one? No, of course not. No bill ever is,” Republican Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole said. “I’m certain that some of my friends on the other side of the aisle would have preferred a lower defense spending number, some of my friends on this side of the aisle would have preferred a higher defense spending number. But even when we both agree that this bill isn’t perfect, we agree that it is a good deal for the American people.”

House Budget Committee vice chairman Seth Moulton also voiced support for the deal, arguing nondefense discretionary spending covers programs important to Americans’ safety, such as veterans health care, embassy security and protecting U.S. borders. 

“But let’s not kid ourselves, this deal is not perfect,” said Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat who is running for his party’s presidential nomination. “America is racking up a huge credit card bill, which our kids will have to pay.”

If enacted, the legislation would avoid a $125 billion decrease in discretionary spending that was set to begin in fiscal 2020 under the 2011 deficit reduction law. It would also suspend the debt limit until July 31, 2021, though Mnuchin says accounting maneuvers could give Treasury until later in the year — removing the possibility, for now, of the country defaulting for the first time since the War of 1812.

Total defense discretionary spending would increase from $716 billion during the current fiscal year to $738 billion during fiscal 2020 and $740.5 billion in fiscal 2021. Nondefense spending would increase from $605 billion during fiscal 2019, to $632 billion in the upcoming fiscal year and $634 billion in fiscal 2021.

The agreement includes $77.4 billion in offsets, about half of the $150 billion the Trump administration originally sought.

The legislation has been sharply criticized by outside conservative groups, who oppose its impact on deficits. Before the vote Thursday, FreedomWorks Vice President of Legislative Affairs Jason Pye called the agreement “ludicrous.”

“There’s no question — Republican leadership shamelessly supporting a budget-busting deal and using the false fear of military atrophy as their cover is dishonest to Americans and disrespectful to our armed forces,” Pye said in a statement.

House Budget Committee ranking member Steve Womack wasn’t thrilled with the budget-busting package either, but he ultimately fell in line behind it. Womack, also an appropriator, argued that discretionary spending isn’t even close to the deficit and debt driver that mandatory or entitlement spending is.

The Arkansas Republican pointed out in a chart on the floor that discretionary budgets under the bill will total $1.37 trillion in fiscal 2020; by the same token mandatory spending such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as well as interest payments on the debt will total $3.28 trillion. Since fiscal 2010, Womack’s chart notes that discretionary budgets will have grown 9 percent through fiscal 2020, while mandatory spending will have grown almost 56 percent during that time.

Katherine Tully-McManus and Michael Macagnone contributed to this report.

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