Washington — The Senate on Thursday is moving closer toward final passage of the $1.7 trillion government spending bill, as lawmakers scramble to clear the package swiftly to stave off a partial government shutdown just before the Christmas holiday, and leave Washington ahead of the approaching winter storm.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer went to the floor to announce an agreement had been reached to complete work on the package in the coming hours. He urged senators not to stray far from the Senate chamber in order to hasten the process, since they vote first on 15 amendments, with up to 18 total votes expected.
“It’s taken a while but it is worth it,” he said. “We know the storm is coming, we want to have people both get the bill done but then be able to go home once we have done our work.”
The breakthrough came after the sweeping plan to fund federal agencies through Sept. 30 was held up by an issue related to Title 42, the pandemic-era measure that allowed for the expulsion of migrants on public-health grounds. Republicans have sought to extend the measure, which was set to expire Wednesday, before Chief Justice John Roberts granted a temporary pause pending further legal action on ending Title 42. The Department of Justice countered by asking the court to quash the GOP bid to extend the measure.
The Senate’s consideration of the mammoth measure began hours after its text, spanning more than 4,100 pages, was unveiled by appropriations leaders in both chambers early Tuesday morning. The culmination of months of bipartisan, bicameral negotiations, the legislation funds federal agencies through fiscal year 2023, which ends Sept. 30.
The spending plan includes $772.5 billion for domestic priorities, and $858 billion for defense. The bill also includes roughly $40 billion in disaster relief for communities recovering from hurricanes, wildfires, drought and other natural disasters, reforms to the Electoral Count Act and a ban on TikTok on federal agencies’ devices, among a slew of other projects for lawmakers.
Crucially, and as Russia continues its attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, the package provides an additional $45 billion in emergency assistance for Ukraine in its continued fight against Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed a joint meeting of Congress Wednesday night at the U.S. Capitol, and urged Congress to pass the extra funding.
“It is in your power really to help us bring to justice everyone who started this unprovoked and criminal war,” Zelenskyy told Congress. “Let’s do it.”
Zelenskyy’s surprise visit, his first time outside of Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February, was a daring one, given the multiple attempts on his life since the war began.
But his appearance also came in the waning days of the current Congress, which has been steadfast in the need for the U.S. to provide military, humanitarian and economic assistance to Ukraine. With Republicans poised to take control of the House next month, and some GOP lawmakers questioning the need for continued funding for Ukraine, it’s uncertain whether another emergency relief package would clear both chambers.
Ahead of Zelenskyy’s speech, Schumer said that when he met with the Ukrainian president, he “made clear that without this aid package, the Ukrainians will be in trouble and could even lose the war.”
The upper chamber voted Tuesday night to advance the legislation, with backing from a wide margin of Senate Republicans. Still, GOP senators have objected to the size of the package and speed with which it’s being moved through Congress, arguing they were given little time to read through a bill spanning more than 4,000 pages.
Support from at least 10 GOP senators is needed for it to clear the Senate before the plan is taken up by the House, and 21 Republicans voted to begin debate on the measure Tuesday.
In an 11th-hour attempt to deter Senate Republicans from voting in favor of the legislation, known as an omnibus bill, a group of 31 House Republicans sent a letter to their colleagues threatening to oppose the legislative priorities of any GOP senator who supported the package.
“Voting in favor of this bill is a dereliction of our duty on all counts,” they warned.
Still, Senate leaders praised the deal reached by Democratic and Republican appropriations leaders in both chambers, the last brokered by Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama before they retire.
The omnibus spending package is likely to be one of the final bills taken up by the Democrat-controlled Congress, and lawmakers are facing a Friday deadline to approve funding for federal agencies or face a partial shutdown. President Biden signed into law last week a short-term extension of government funding, which allowed lawmakers to continue negotiating the details of the $1.7 trillion plan.
Adding to the urgency for Congress is an approaching winter storm that is expected to snarl holiday travel. Schumer on Wednesday pushed the Senate to move quickly and warned senators against slowing down the process.
“I urge my colleagues not to stand in the way of moving this process forward,” he said. “Nobody wants a shutdown. Nobody benefits from a shutdown, and so I hope nobody here will delay this process to fund government ASAP.”
While Republicans in the House and Senate have balked at the package’s size and been pushing for spending talks to be pushed to January, when the party takes control of the House and can demand spending cuts, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has called for its approval.
“This is an impressive outcome for the Republican negotiators, and more importantly, it is the outcome that our country actually needs to keep helping Ukraine and our other friends, to keep out innovating and outcompeting Russia and China and to keep our brave men and women in uniform equipped with the best training, tools, and technologies the world has ever seen,” he said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
The White House, too, supports the package and said in a statement it includes investments that advance a range of national priorities and advocated its passage.
“This bipartisan legislation demonstrates once more that both parties can come together to deliver for the American people and make progress on critical priorities for the nation,” it said. “The bill advances cutting-edge research on cancer and other diseases, makes communities safer, delivers for America’s veterans, supports the Ukrainian people, helps communities recovering from devastating natural disasters, invests in child care and education, and more.”
Alan He contributed to this report.