UPDATED: Vermont delegation split on major federal budget deal

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By , VTDigger.org

WASHINGTON — Vermont’s delegation split over a massive budget deal that temporarily funds the federal government and sets a fiscal framework for the country for the next two years.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats brokered the package, which raises limits on spending for both defense and non-defense programs by about $300 billion, funds government through March 23 and extends several health care programs.

Despite bipartisan support for the package in both chambers, the federal government went into a partial shutdown overnight because lawmakers did not pass the bill by the midnight deadline, when funding under a resolution passed in January expired. By the time most Americans were waking up Friday morning, Congress had passed the bill to end the shutdown.

It was the second shut down in less than three weeks.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who is vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, applauded the agreement and urged his colleagues to vote for the bill.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., announced in a statement late Thursday that he would also vote for the package when it came to the House, but he characterized the deal as “far from perfect.”

In contrast, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said Thursday he would not vote for the deal, in part because the measure did not include an extension of a program set to expire next month that offers temporary work permits to some undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as children.

The budget deal establishes a federal spending framework for the current fiscal year and the next year.

It also extends government funding on a short-term basis for the next six weeks. Lawmakers plan to use that time to craft a long-term appropriations package that sets spending levels on individual line items across the federal government.

Sanders, the ranking member on the Budget Committee, said while he supports much of what is in the package, he would not vote for it. He opposed it because the package did not include a legislative fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — what he described as “the great moral crisis of the moment.”

He also objected to the increase in funding for military programs, “when we spend already more money on defense than the next 12 nations.”

However, Sanders said he supports many initiatives in the package related to infrastructure, child care and more.

“I think there’s a lot of very, very strong provisions in there that protect working families,” Sanders said.

Leahy made the case for supporting the legislation on the Senate floor.

He said it includes many of his top priorities, including money for initiatives related to the opioid crisis and increasing the budget caps. It also paves the way for the appropriations process to play out.

Leahy said that he would have preferred for the measure to include a fix for DACA, and would join other lawmakers in continuing to push for separate legislation that continues the program.

“I see the agreement does not contain everything I’d like. Very little that I see in legislation does contain everything that I want,” Leahy said. “But on balance it contains a lot and is a good bill for the American people.”

Welch bashed the fiscal year 2018 budget proposed by President Donald Trump as “cruel,” and credited congressional leaders with crafting an alternative.

“The budget blueprint restores our commitment to fund vital programs relied on by Vermonters,” he said in a statement.

He said he would support the deal, noting that the package includes several initiatives he backs. However, he said, he is “deeply disappointed” that it does not include a provision to create a path to citizenship for DACA recipients.

Welch helped organize a letter from the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus this week asking House Speaker Paul Ryan to allow DACA legislation to move forward using a process known as “queen of the hill” — where the body votes on multiple proposals, and the one with the strongest support proceeds.

He also raised concerns over the levels of funding for defense programs, saying the package provides “more Pentagon spending than is necessary to secure our nation.”

Just weeks ago, a stalemate over DACA and government funding led to a three-day shutdown.

Early Thursday, Congress appeared poised to move on the package before a midnight deadline when government funding was set to expire, which would lead to a partial shutdown.

However, the trajectory hit a snag when Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., objected to a procedural motion that would have allowed the Senate to take up the bill Thursday afternoon. Paul opposed the spending proposal, which he described as “reckless.”

The halls near the Senate chamber were quiet in the afternoon while Paul staged a one-man crusade to block the bill. He appeared on the floor in the evening, objecting to motions to proceed offered by members of his party. At one point, he appeared to politely but firmly refuse a plea by the Senate minority leader in a conversation on the floor.

Paul held his ground until after midnight, leading to a a partial shutdown overnight.

“This is a terrible rotten, no-good way to spend your money,” he said early Friday morning. “It’s a terrible way to budget your money. It’s a terrible thing to sort of lurch from deadline to deadline.”

The Senate passed the measure at around 2 a.m. on a vote of 71-28, sending it to the House for final approval.

The package faced uncertain prospects in the lower chamber. As of Thursday evening, House Republicans appeared split over the measure, with fiscal hawks opposed to the spending levels. Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she would not support it without concessions on DACA.

The House passed the budget deal at about 5:30 a.m. by a 240-186 vote. Welch was among 73 Democrats who voted with Republican leadership in favor of the package.

Opioid crisis, dairy farmers and more

The package raises budget caps for the next two years for programs related to defense as well as those for non-defense. Under a 2011 law, when government spending exceeds certain targets, it automatically triggers significant cuts.

The package the Senate finalized includes key victories for Democrats — including increasing the spending levels for non-defense programs in addition to defense programs.

The agreement designates money for initiatives including $3 billion in each of the next two fiscal years for combating the opioid addiction crisis, $1 billion each year to support health research, and $2 billion each year for Department of Veterans Affairs health care programs.

Included in the deal is reauthorization for a program that helps fund community health centers. Roughly a quarter of Vermonters access health care through centers supported by the program, which lapsed last October. The program has been funded on a short term-basis since then.

The measure also includes reauthorizations of some Medicare funding programs, including one that increases payments to home health providers in rural areas by between 2.5 and 3 percent. The Medicare bump has not been paid since Jan. 11, which has impacted many agencies in Vermont.

The package will also extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, for a decade. Lawmakers previously approved a six-year authorization of the program in January.

Another provision included in the package, which Leahy pushed for, makes changes to a program that aims to shield dairy farmers from the financial blows of volatile milk prices.

Leahy worked with Appropriations Chair Thad Cochran, R-Miss., to strike a deal on safety net programs for both dairy and cotton farmers, according to his staff.

Milk prices have declined to levels last seen two decades ago.

The adjustments to the Margin Protection Program will reopen enrollment for the current year, make calculations and payments more frequent, cut some premium costs, and more, according to Leahy’s staff.

The deal, Leahy said on Senate floor, will provide some “immediate assistance” to farmers ahead of the next major agriculture bill.

Also included in the Senate agreement is an $89.4 billion disaster relief package that will help support recovery efforts in areas affected by hurricanes and wildfires late last year.

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