It's cramming time for Congress as lawmakers will spend the next two days scouring—and then likely voting on—a $1.013 trillion, 1,600-page spending bill released on Tuesday night after months of bipartisan negotiations.
The House and Senate must act to fund the government by midnight on Thursday to avoid a shutdown. In classic congressional fashion, appropriators posted their enormous bill, which is replete with key policy provisions negotiated behind closed doors, just over 48 hours before the deadline, leaving little time for debate or amendments.
"I wish it were done last week, but it wasn't, so here we are," Speaker John Boehner said on Wednesday, dismissing concerns about the quick turnaround.
With barely any notice, for example, Congress is poised to all but overturn the will of voters in the District of Columbia by blocking funding for the city to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana under a ballot initiative approved last month. And although it has nothing to do with the budget, authors of the bill tucked in a provision that dramatically expands the amount of money wealthy contributors can give to political parties.
While Boehner and House GOP leaders have championed their ban of congressional earmarks criticized as porkbarrel spending, the last-minute policy provisions—known inside the Beltway as "riders"—are subject to the same negligible amount of public debate. The speaker defended their inclusion nonetheless. "All of these provisions in this bill have been worked out in a bipartisan, bicameral fashion or they wouldn’t be in the bill," Boehner told reporters.
"It reflects conservative priorities, yet it is also a compromise bill that can and should have wide bipartisan support in both the House and Senate," Representative Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican and the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in releasing the text of the bill. "This is exactly the kind of legislation and bipartisan cooperation that the American people called for in the voting booths last month. Passage of this bill will show our people that we can and will govern responsibly."The legislation does represent a modest improvement over recent congressional practice in one respect: Rather than a stopgap measure that extends funding for only a few months, the omnibus appropriations bill budgets spending for nearly the entire federal government through the end of the fiscal year next September. The exception is the Department of Homeland Security, which will get money only through late February because Republicans refused to fund President Obama's executive action on immigration for the entire year. (The hybrid led to the creation of the absurd, only-in-Washington moniker "CRomnibus," a combination of an omnibus bill and a continuing resolution, or CR.)
About half of the bill is defense spending, including about $5 billion in increases that the Obama administration requested for the overseas fight against the Islamic State. The White House also scored a victory with the inclusion of $5.4 billion to combat Ebola domestically and in West Africa, along with more modest increases for scientific research. The polarizing healthcare law got no new money, but the bill does not seek to block its implementation. But in conservative priorities, the measure cuts appropriations for the IRS and the EPA, contains no funding for high-speed rail, and targets but does not totally dismantle Michelle Obama's school lunch program. Vice President Joe Biden also took a hit, as the bill ensures he won't get a pay raise next year.
House Republicans met in the Capitol on Wednesday morning, and there was sure to be opposition from some of the party's more conservative members over the level of federal spending, the rushed process of approving the bill, or both. That will likely require Boehner to turn to Democrats for help passing the bill, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was noncommittal on Tuesday night. “Until we review the final language, we cannot make a determination about whether House Democrats can support this legislation, but I am hopeful," she said.
In the Senate, passage of the bill would be one of the last acts of the Democratic majority before Republicans take control in January. It's unlikely most Republicans would try to torpedo the measure, but conservatives like Ted Cruz have pushed to block all funding for the president's immigration policy, which the bill does not do. If the House and Senate cannot pass the budget by Thursday, they would have to approve a short-term measure to buy themselves more time and keep the government open into next week.