Congress reveals plan to fund parts of US government through Sept

WASHINGTON – US congressional leaders revealed a detailed agreement to keep large parts of the government operating through Sept 30 as they sprint to avert another shutdown deadline at the end of the week.

The US$436 billion (S$586 billion) package, covering about a quarter of funding for government agencies, represents the first real progress toward resolving ideological clashes behind the series of shutdown threats and interim patches the US has operated under for more than five months. It includes provisions to prevent oil sales from the US’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve to China and track foreign purchases of US farmland.

But it sidesteps lingering disputes by leaving out funding for the Defence Department, Homeland Security and social programs operated through the Health and Human Services Department. Those agencies are currently set to shut down on March 23 and there is no agreement on their funding.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the 1,050-page Bill published Sunday did not have any “rider” policy language anathema to Democrats.

“We are proud to be keeping the government open without cuts or poison pill riders,” he said. He added Democrats were proud of funding levels for the women, infant and children feeding program, infrastructure and veterans benefits.

The Bill boosts food aid under the so-called WIC nutrition program, providing US$7.03 billion, a US$1.03 billion increase over the current level, Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray said in a statement.

The House plans to act first on the partial funding measure, clearing it before President Joe Biden delivers his annual State of the Union address on March 7. The Senate plans to follow, with many of the agencies covered set to run out money at the end of the week.

The measure includes funds for the departments of Agriculture, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs and Energy, along with the Food and Drug Administration. The Environmental Protection Agency and departments of Commerce, Justice and Interior also are covered.

The Bill falls short of conservative demands for giant cuts to domestic spending and contains few conservative policy changes.

One change Republicans were able to secure is a new limit on how the Veterans Affairs department shares information with the federal gun registry. Currently, when a veteran asks for help in managing benefits, the gun registry is notified that the veteran may not be competent to own a firearm. The provision would limit that sharing to instances where a veteran poses a danger to themselves or others.

The Bill would direct officials to flag foreign purchases of US agricultural land, focusing on entities connected to China, North Korea, Russia, and Iran. While it doesn’t outright ban those purchases as House Republicans originally planned, the bill adds the US secretary of Agriculture to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, to review agricultural transactions.

The Bill also would renew strategically important compacts with Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, which grant the US military access to their waters in exchange for funding.

The GOP touted that the Bill newly prohibits the Justice Department from targeting or investigating “parents who peacefully protest at school board meetings and are not suspected of engaging in unlawful activity.”

A hard-fought weeks-long battle by the GOP to allow states to limit food-stamp benefits to more nutritious foods didn’t succeed, according a House Republican leadership official.

The GOP acknowledges that non-defence funding overall doesn’t receive a cut in the funding deal, but points out that Biden in his budget proposal for the year sought a US$72 billion increase for the category.

Speaker Mike Johnson said House Republicans navigated divided government and a small majority to change spending and policy priorities.

“American taxpayers will benefit from it,” he said in a statement.

Flat funding for domestic spending squeezes some agency budgets due to rising veterans’ health costs and food cuts for women and infants, the Republican official said. Veterans Affairs medical funding would see a US$2.3 billion increase over the current level, leaving the rest of non-defence funds to face a cut to meet the agreed-upon cap.

The Bill contains billions for lawmaker pet projects known as earmarks, as Republican leaders agreed to continue the once banned practice.

Republicans are pleased that the draft Bill will redirect US$20 billion in funds for tax audits by the Internal Revenue Service that the GOP said could be used to harass taxpayers. Those funds were provided as part of Biden’s signature economic package in the last Congress and would generate large revenue by detecting tax cheats, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

It also redirects US$18 billion in previously approved Covid-19 pandemic funds for other uses.

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