Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) announced Wednesday that they reached a bipartisan deal to raise budget caps for fiscal years (FYs) 2018 and 2019, paving the way for Congress to finalize funding levels for the fiscal year that began on October 1st.
The fourth stopgap spending bill passed last month after a brief three-day shutdown was set to expire at midnight on Thursday. After a delayed vote in the Senate due to objections from Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), the government shut down for a few hours overnight, but both chambers approved legislation in the early hours of Friday morning that provided funding to allow government operations to resume by normal opening hours Friday.
Congress overcame a key hurdle this week with the budget agreement announced by Senate leaders Wednesday. Members from both parties have been struggling to negotiate topline spending levels for the current fiscal year, which due to budget control legislation passed in 2011 would be lower than FY 2017 funding levels. The sticking point in the budget cap debate has been finding a way to please Republicans who have been calling for significant increases in defense spending, as well as Democrats who have demanded parity in raising spending for non-defense programs.
The agreement reached by Congressional leaders this week and passed this morning includes items requested by both parties in an attempt to gain bipartisan support and move along the appropriations process. The deal includes a two-year agreement to raise budget caps, as well as specific funding for a number of programs. The deal increases non-defense spending for FYs 2018 and 2019 by $63 billion per year above the cap set in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and suspends the federal debt limit for just over a year until March 2019. In addition, the bill provides nearly $90 billion in disaster relief funding for hurricane-affected areas, $4 billion for college affordability, and $6 billion for opioid and mental health treatment, among other funding.
Although a budget deal has been reached by Congress, appropriators need additional time to finalize individual program funding levels for each agency, which will be included in an omnibus spending package. In order to provide that extra time, Congress approved a fifth continuing resolution (CR) as part of the legislation passed Friday morning, keeping the government funded at current levels. That CR will expire on March 23rd, giving appropriators six weeks to craft a detailed spending package.
Final funding levels for education are still uncertain; however, States and districts are unlikely to see dramatic cuts overall to the amounts they receive on July 1st. Depending on whether appropriators use the House or Senate proposals that were passed last year as a base for the omnibus package, though, it’s possible that funding for Title II-A and 21st Century Community Learning Centers under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act could see a small decrease. As Congress works to craft its spending package over the next few weeks, a clearer picture of what to expect for final funding levels will emerge.
Negotiations over FY 2018 funding have dragged on for months due to disagreement over key issues such as the topline budget levels and the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. A brief three-day government shutdown ended last month only after the Majority Leader promised Senate Democrats that a fair debate on immigration would be forthcoming.
The possibility of a government shutdown was increased earlier this week after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) took to the floor for eight hours sharing stories of DACA participants in an attempt to force House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) to guarantee a debate on immigration, similar to the assurance McConnell provided Senate Democrats last month. Pelosi noted that she would not support the budget agreement reached this week, with a number of other House Democrats following her lead.
The legislation passed Friday morning was also opposed by the conservative bloc in the House known as the Freedom Caucus, making passage uncertain. In the end, the bill was approved with slim margins. Seventy-three House Democrats supported the bill while 67 Republicans voted no.
The deal passed this week clears the path for Congress to be able to engage in debate on immigration reform in the coming weeks as appropriators finalize a spending package for consideration next month.
Resources: Mike DeBonis and Erica Werner, “Brief Government Shutdown Ends as Trump Signs Spending Bill,” Washington Post, February 9, 2018.