United States Congress Looks to Pack Additional Measures into Government Funding Bill

The United States Congress faces a difficult task this week as lawmakers try to use a $1.7 trillion government funding bill to include other priorities, including reforms to drug sentencing, a ban on TikTok from government-owned devices, and tweaks to election rules. 

Republicans and Democrats aim to cram as many legislative wish-list items into the “omnibus” bill, which will fund the government until the end of the fiscal year on September 30, 2023, without upending the whole package. 

If the legislators fail, it could bring a partial government shutdown, starting on Saturday, the day before Christmas. It could lead to an extended standoff following Republicans seizing control of the House on January 3. 

Full details of the package were being constructed over the weekend. However, it will include a record $858 billion in funding for defense — around $45 billion more than was proposed by Biden — funding for agencies ranging from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Homeland Security. 

Democrats want comparable increases in non-defense and defense spending, which was objected to by GOP lawmakers, saying that President Biden had passed several other domestic spending bills over the last two years when they held complete control of Congress.

“Republicans simply were not going to lavish extra-liberal spending” in the omnibus bill on spending that is non-defense, said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. 

The cumbersome Senate rules mean it may take a few days for the funding bill even to be brought to a vote. The House will then need to pass the bill. The bill requires at least 10 Republican votes to move through the Senate. However, it can pass the House with only Democratic support before moving to the president’s desk for his signature. 

Votes, drugs, and TikTok

California Democrat Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said she supports the bill as a means to pass a measure approved by the Senate last week to ban federal employees from using the TikTok video app, which is Chinese-owned, on government-owned devices. 

Support from top House Republican Representative Kevin McCarthy, along with Pelosi’s, significantly raises the chances that the provision will be adopted. 

An additional spending deal add-on appears certain: Democrat and Republican leaders have agreed to clarify how U.S. presidential election winners are certified by Congress. 

Lawmakers and their staff spent the weekend gauging how to squeeze special initiatives into the catch-all spending bill. The alternative is to set aside certain efforts for now. That occurred with the Democrats’ drive to give citizenship to “Dreamer” immigrants who entered the United States illegally as children. 

A tentative deal has recently been reached on a criminal justice matter. A provision may be added to the omnibus bill to address disparities between the use of powder and crack cocaine. According to human and civil rights organizations, the decades-old law has resulted in many more harsh sentences for Black people using crack cocaine.

Democrats did not appear to be gaining traction on their bid to renew expired child tax credits. GOP members have balked, citing the overall cost.

Democrat Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio signaled he supports a tax code that helps bolster U.S. manufacturing. However, he wants it combined with the enhanced child tax credit. “What are we here to do in this body, if not to make things just a little bit easier” for struggling families, Brown said. 

Each add-on carries the risk that it could cost crucial votes needed for passage in the narrowly divided Congress. McConnell warned that if it doesn’t look like the omnibus bill is headed for enactment by Thursday, he will support “pivoting” to the third short-term funding bill it will have passed. If a third short-term funding bill is passed, the omnibus bill’s passage will carry over into the new year, when Republicans gain control of the House. President Biden and his fellow Dems in Congress are working to avoid that outcome.