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Senate passes defense and health spending bill, tries to delay border-wall fight to after midterms

President Trump speaks during a June meeting with Republicans including Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), left — one of the leaders of the Senate effort to avert a government shutdown — and Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.).
President Trump speaks during a June meeting with Republicans including Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), left — one of the leaders of the Senate effort to avert a government shutdown — and Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.). (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The Senate on Tuesday passed a short-term spending bill that would keep the government running through Dec. 7, aiming to avert a government shutdown and put off a fight over funding for President Trump’s border wall until after the midterm elections.

The short-term bill came attached to a massive budget package containing full-year 2019 funding for the Pentagon as well as for the Labor, Education and Health and Human Services departments. GOP leaders designed the package to combine key Republican and Democratic priorities in an attempt to garner overwhelming bipartisan support. The package also aims to satisfy Trump’s desire for more military spending.

The 93-to-7 vote came less than two weeks ahead of a Sept. 30 deadline when government funding will expire unless Congress and Trump intervene.

President Trump suggested that Republicans would trigger a government shutdown if border security funding was not approved on Aug. 2 in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (Video: The Washington Post)

The legislation would keep the government open by funding agencies whose budgets Congress has not addressed before the shutdown deadline at current levels through Dec. 7.

“This is necessary to ensure that we do not face a government shutdown in the event that we do not finish our work on the remaining bills,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The House is expected to take up the bill next week, but it remains uncertain whether Trump would sign the measure.

The legislation would not increase funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which funds construction of the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The president has toyed repeatedly with shutting down the government to try to get more funding for the border wall, at times saying there would not be a shutdown and other times saying he would welcome one. Congressional Republicans are convinced that a shutdown just ahead of the midterms would be disastrous.

Over the weekend, Trump lambasted Republican leaders over the issue, writing on Twitter, “When will Republican leadership learn that they are being played like a fiddle by the Democrats on Border Security and Building the Wall? Without Borders, we don’t have a country. With Open Borders, which the Democrats want, we have nothing but crime! Finish the Wall!”

Trump repeatedly promised during the campaign that Mexico would pay for the wall.

Senate Democrats have agreed to $1.6 billion for Trump’s wall in 2019, far short of the $5 billion Trump wants. Convinced they do not have the votes in the Senate to get Trump the money he wants, GOP leaders elected to put off a messy fight over Trump’s signature campaign issue until after the midterms.

All told, the Pentagon and Labor-HHS spending bills account for more than 60 percent of all discretionary spending, which is the portion of the $4 trillion federal budget that Congress doles out annually. That does not include what are called “mandatory” spending programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, that operate without annual appropriations from Congress.

The Pentagon budget for 2019 would be $606.5 billion under the legislation passed Tuesday, a $17 billion increase over 2018.

Funding for the Labor, Education and Health and Human Services departments would total $178 billion, a $1 billion increase from 2018 and almost $11 billion more than Trump requested in his budget proposal for 2019. The Trump administration has objected to the increases in domestic budgets Congress is approving, but that is the price Democrats exacted for agreeing to big military spending increases sought by Republicans and Trump.

Although Congress again finds itself nearing the end of the fiscal year without completing action on the 12 must-pass spending bills that fund all government agencies, the situation still represents a major improvement over recent years of budget dysfunction.

Congress did not pass its 2018 spending bills until this past March, months after the fiscal year had begun and following two brief government shutdowns. The bills were finally all mashed together into a massive $1.3 trillion “omnibus” that Trump signed only reluctantly, after first threatening to veto it.

The president vowed then he would never sign another such bill. That presidential threat has spurred lawmakers into faster action on spending bills, which have been packaged into smaller “minibus” bills. One such three-bill package was sent to Trump last week, and the Defense-HHS “minibus” is the next step.

“Today’s bill reflects the priorities I think of both sides of the Capitol and both sides of the aisle,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a senior Appropriations Committee member. “It also fulfills, by the way, the president’s demand that he doesn’t want any more of the omnibus spending bills.”

Action on the seven outstanding spending bills can be delayed until Dec. 7 under the legislation the Senate passed Thursday, although congressional appropriators are still trying to finish work on four others by Sept. 30 — not including the one for DHS.

Even as congressional leaders of both parties praised Tuesday’s vote, some conservatives lamented the outcome. Numerous conservative priorities were left out of the labor, health and education spending bill, because Senate Democrats have effective veto power over spending bills that require 60 votes in the Senate.

The conservative priorities discarded in the final deal included provisions to block funding for Planned Parenthood, block funding to administer the Affordable Care Act and block funding for fetal tissue research.

“Congress’s annual spending bills will contain no new reforms protecting unborn children or getting federal taxpayers out of the abortion business,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who was among the senators voting no.

The legislation also includes language sought by Democrats to address the issue of family separations at the border, including a provision directing the HHS secretary to submit a family reunification plan to Congress.

Also included in the package approved Tuesday is a short-term reauthorization, until Dec. 7, of the Violence Against Women Act. Democrats have sought a longer-term reauthorization.