The U.S. Capitol building is seen on Oct. 22, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate passed a massive $1.7 trillion funding package Thursday that carries emergency aid for natural disaster recovery and the Ukrainian war effort, pushing past disputes over immigration policy and barely meeting a Friday deadline when current funding runs out.
The bill, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, now goes to the U.S. House, which could act yet Thursday. The overwhelming majority of Republicans there are expected to vote against sending the measure to President Joe Biden after unsuccessfully trying to hold over negotiations until next year when they’ll control that chamber. Biden has said he would sign the omnibus bill.
The package, approved on a 68-29 Senate vote just hours after an address to Congress by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, includes $45 billion in new military and humanitarian aid to assist Ukrainians in their fight against Russia’s invasion. That brings the U.S. investment in the war to more than $111 billion. Sixty votes were needed for passage, and the 68 “yes” votes included South Dakota Republican Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds.
It would also make notable changes, negotiated by lawmakers, in the state-federal Medicaid health insurance program for low-income Americans and people with disabilities. The package would allow states to begin removing some millions of residents from Medicaid as soon as April and would phase out the bump in federal funding states got during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep people on the health care program.
The measure was the last Senate vote of the current Congress; lawmakers will reconvene in January.
Pregnant workers, Title 42
Before approving the bill, senators voted to reject seven amendments and adopt eight during a four-hour vote series. The modifications to the package included provisions dealing with standards for pregnant workers; state use of COVID-19 funding; and protections for nursing mothers. Senators rejected amendments dealing with Title 42, a controversial public health policy used to turn away migrants at the border.
Among the votes:
- Senators voted 73-24 to adopt an amendment from Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy that added the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to the package. Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey Jr., a primary sponsor of the bill, said the amendment would set a standard for “reasonable accommodations” to ensure “that if a woman is pregnant in the workforce, she can do her job and have a healthy and safe pregnancy.” Cassidy argued the measure would do “what we want for ourselves, our wives, our sisters and our daughters.” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also backed its inclusion, saying “the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is one of the most significant improvements to workplace protections in years. Tens of millions will be covered under this legislation, especially millions who work low-income jobs, long hours and get little support.” The measure is extremely close to a version of the bill approved by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, though lawmakers strengthened “protections for religious employers,” according to Cassidy’s office.
- The Senate adopted by voice vote an amendment from Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn and California Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla that would give local, state and tribal governments more flexibility in how they use unspent COVID-19 funding from the federal government.
- Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, had their amendment adopted by voice vote. It would allow the U.S. Justice Department through the Secretary of State to transfer proceeds seized from Russian oligarchs under sanctions or other Russian entities under sanctions to Ukraine.
- The Senate, 92-5, adopted an amendment from Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley and Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski that added the Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers Act to the package. Merkley said the amendment broadens a bill Congress passed in 2010 to allow nursing mothers time and space to pump breast milk while at work. Murkowski said the provision is “good for babies, it’s good for new mothers, it’s good for employers to get these women back into the workforce.” HELP Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement the measure would “help close loopholes that leave nearly nine million working moms uncovered by federal protections to ensure they have reasonable break time and a private place to pump.”
- The Senate rejected an amendment from Arizona independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester that would have addressed Title 42. The pandemic-era policy, originally put in place during the Trump administration, allows the border patrol to turn away migrants under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s public health authorities. Title 42 was set to expire Wednesday, but the U.S. Supreme Court intervened in an ongoing court case, temporarily keeping the program in place until the justices can take further action. “This amendment keeps Title 42 until a permanent plan is in place, boosts desperately needed border funding for security, invests in our agents and officers, and stops the flow of dangerous drugs,” Sinema said. Tester said the provision would have approved additional funding “for judges and legal officials to ensure orderly processing” as well as providing resources for law enforcement at the Southern border and overriding the Biden administration’s decision to sunset Title 42. The 10-87 vote on the Sinema-Tester amendment, which would have provided $8.7 billion, fell short of meeting the 60-vote threshold set for adoption.
- The Senate rejected a separate Title 42 amendment from Utah GOP Sen. Mike Lee that would have extended Title 42 by preventing the federal government from spending any money to end the designation. The vote was 47-50. Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin spoke against Lee’s amendment, saying “this is not about public health anymore. It is our excuse for not tackling the very real challenge and coming up with a border policy on a bipartisan basis.”
House and Senate GOP split
The decision by House Republican leaders to sit out the bipartisan negotiations on the funding package and whip against the bill marked a stark contrast with Senate GOP leaders, who helped shape the legislation and voted for the measure.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Wednesday morning that the bill is “imperfect but strong” and lauded a large boost in defense spending.
“Senators have two options this week: We will either give our armed forces the resources and certainty that they need, or we will deny it to them,” McConnell said.
He noted that a failure to pass the omnibus would lead Congress to instead have to pass additional stopgap spending bills that would give the “military real-dollar funding cuts because of inflation, and give Defense Department leaders no certainty to plan and invest.”
McConnell also backed the investment in Ukraine, saying it’s “morally right.”
“But it’s not only that. It’s also a direct investment in cold, hard American interests,” McConnell added.
Schumer hailed the domestic spending increases in the legislation during a Wednesday morning floor speech, noting it would boost federal child care assistance funds by 30% and make permanent a program that allows kids to access school meals during the summer months.
The package would also allow states to keep providing one year of postpartum health care coverage for patients within Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a change Schumer said is “a great breakthrough.”
“Discrimination in maternal care and at birth is a real blot on our country, and the fact that people of color have higher rates of mortality is a disgrace,” Schumer said. “This goes a good way toward trying to rectify that blot on our country’s pride.”
The sweeping $1.7 trillion spending package would fund the departments and agencies that make up the federal government, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, public lands and the Pentagon, through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
Negotiators released the 4,155-page omnibus government funding bill early Tuesday morning, following months of back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans about how much in additional money to provide during the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1.
The bill includes $40 billion to help communities recover from natural disasters, including $5 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund, $3.7 billion for crop and livestock losses and $75 million for Interior Department wildland fire suppression activities.
The package carries along with it several bills that lawmakers have been negotiating for months, including legislation that would update the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to clarify the vice president’s role as ceremonial and increase the threshold for objecting to a state’s electors from one member from each chamber to one-fifth of each chamber.
The measure would ban federal employees from having the social media app TikTok on work phones.
Lawmakers wrapped in a bill that would allow the Food and Drug Administration to have oversight of cosmetics for the first time.
Medicaid plans, Afghan resettlement
The shifts in Medicaid come after 25 GOP governors wrote to Biden earlier this week, calling for an end to the COVID-19 public health emergency in April and arguing the designation is “negatively affecting states” by increasing the number of residents on Medicaid.
“This is costing states hundreds of millions of dollars,” the governors wrote in the letter.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic,” they wrote, “states have added 20 million individuals to the Medicaid rolls (an increase of 30%) and those numbers continue to climb as the PHE continues to be extended every 90 days.”
Democrats have emphasized other changes in the omnibus that will benefit children.
“I’m ecstatic that Medicaid and CHIP will now offer 12 months of continuous coverage for children to ensure that the 40 million children on Medicaid and CHIP have uninterrupted access to health care throughout the year,” said House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat, in a statement.
“Thanks to this provision, and the additional two years of funding secured in this agreement for CHIP, our kids will no longer be subject to fluctuations in coverage that endangers their health and well-being.
“The omnibus also makes the option for states to offer 12 months of postpartum coverage permanent, which I hope all states will adopt to ensure new moms have access to health care in the critical first year after delivery.”
On other issues affecting families, the omnibus government funding package doesn’t include the expansion of the child tax credit that Congress approved during the pandemic, but had since lapsed amid disagreement about how it should be structured.
The measure also doesn’t include the Afghan Adjustment Act, a bipartisan bill that would have helped provide a pathway to permanent legal residency for certain Afghan evacuees.
Schumer said Tuesday that GOP leaders prevented the bill from going into the catchall spending package.
“It was a very high priority. It had some good Republican support, but unfortunately the Republican leadership blocked it,” Schumer said. “These are people who risked their lives for our soldiers and for our country.”
McConnell said the bill was left out, in part, because of the time crunch to negotiate the government funding measure in the last days of the 117th Congress.
“It is an important issue, but there were many things that one could argue were important that didn’t make it into the bill,” McConnell said. “That ought to be addressed. I think it’s important.”
Several former ambassadors to Afghanistan wrote a letter to Congress, as did three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and several other retired military officers, urging lawmakers to pass the bill.
Without the Afghan Adjustment Act, the former ambassadors wrote, “tens of thousands of recently arrived Afghans will have to find an existing immigration pathway to remain lawful once their parole expires.”
“That will mean tens of thousands of new asylum claims, when the current affirmative asylum backlog is more than 400,000 cases with a broader immigration backlog of 1.4 million cases.”
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