Senators agree to move forward on omnibus spending bill

December 23, 2022

Senators broke an immigration-related impasse on Thursday morning, December 22—reaching a deal on amendments that clears the way to pass a $1.65 trillion spending bill just ahead of the Christmas holiday and a looming winter storm, reports The Wall Street Journal.

“We will vote on all of the amendments in order and then vote on final passage,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said on the Senate floor. Schumer said that an immigration amendment from Senator Kyrsten Sinema (I- Arizona) and Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) would be added to the list of amendment votes ahead of final passage, alongside one by Senator Mike Lee (R- Utah) that had frozen Senate business as Senate Democrats scrambled to keep it from passing.

Schumer told senators to remain close by and try to remain in the chairs so that the Senate could vote quickly, rather than the more leisurely pace typical of chamber votes. In all, there are more than a dozen planned amendments, including votes aimed at stopping discrimination against pregnant workers and eliminating earmarks tagged for specific projects in members’ home states or districts; and other legislation aimed at giving Ukraine funds from forfeited property.

Senators had been trying to reach an agreement on the terms for cutting off debate and proceeding to a vote on the government funding bill for fiscal 2023. The bill, which would keep the government funded beyond December 23, also carries $45 billion in aid for Ukraine and NATO allies, and would finance big increases in military and domestic spending, including military pay raises.

Lawmakers said the holdup in negotiations had centered on Republican efforts to get an amendment vote on Title 42the pandemic-era public-health measure allowing migrants to be expelled back to Mexico after crossing the U.S. border illegally. The policy was set to end this week but has been kept in place temporarily by the Supreme Court.

Sinema’s amendment resembles parts of an immigration compromise she has been working on with Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina. It would extend Title 42 until a different plan to manage the border is in place.

The amendment also includes $330 million to create two additional central processing centers at the southern border, increases Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention space and gives Border Patrol agents a pay raise. It also would provide $200 million to fill in gaps of the border wall former President Donald Trump’s Administration rapidly expanded.

Offering both Title-42-related amendments gives lawmakers in each party the opportunity to vote for the legislation they prefer, but will likely keep Lee’s from passing in the evenly divided chamber. Under the agreement, Lee’s amendment will need a simple majority to pass, while the Sinema-Tester bill will need 60 votes. Tillis said it wasn’t clear ahead of the vote if his compromise amendment had enough votes to pass.

Lee said the Sinema-Tester bill was “a wolf in sheep’s clothing to mislead the American people to believe Dems are doing something to secure our borders.” He said the bill was designed to give some Democrats a way to look tough on the border while voting against his extension of Title 42.

Senate Democratic leadership had been concerned that, without another option, some centrist Democrats would join with Republicans to pass Lee’s amendment at the majority threshold. The Senate is currently split 50-50. If the bill were amended to keep Title 42 in place, Senate Democrats were concerned that it would cause the bill to fail once it was sent to the House.

Unlike the Senate, which is expected to pull in strong bipartisan support for the omnibus, House Republicans urged members to vote against the spending bill. While a handful may still support the legislation, it is unclear if enough Democrats would vote for the legislation if the Title 42 measure was included. Many progressive Democrats oppose Title 42.

The Title 42 policy, first rolled out by the Trump Administration as COVID-19 was starting to spread, is believed to have acted as a deterrent for some migrants seeking asylum because they could be turned back even if they asked for protection in the United States.

Most border analysts expect that lifting the policy will lead to at least a temporary spike in illegal border crossings. In anticipation of the policy’s expiration, which had been set for Wednesday, some border cities were seeing surges. In El Paso, Texas, migrants primarily from Nicaragua slept on the streets in near-freezing temperatures because bus or plane tickets to leave the city were booked up.

On Tuesday, congressional appropriators unveiled the wide-ranging spending bill for fiscal 2023 with sharp increases in military and domestic funding, with the aim to get it passed before the deadline and to go home before Christmas.

The bipartisan legislation cleared its first procedural hurdle on Tuesday, with a 70-25 vote to proceed to the bill. The bill needs 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles in the Senate and a simple majority to pass. However, all senators must agree to give back debate time to hurry the process along.

The spending package drew objections from some Republicans in the Senate and House who said it was bloated and full of unnecessary spending. Critics said that leadership should have released the bill sooner rather than forcing lawmakers to vote after just days to review it.

“It’s three times the size of the bible,” said Senator Rick Scott (R-Florida) of the more than 4,000-page spending bill. “It’s Democrats’ spending.”

Some House Republicans also had argued that Republicans should refuse to begin talks on the bill until the next Congress, when the GOP will control the House. But those calls were ignored by Senate negotiators.

The bill includes $858 billion in military spending, $45 billion more than President Biden had requested and up about 10% from $782 billion the prior year. Senate negotiators said it also includes $772.5 billion in nondefense discretionary spending, up almost 6% from $730 billion the prior year. The overall discretionary price tag works out to about $1.65 trillion, compared with $1.5 trillion the prior fiscal year.

The bill also includes changes to the 1887 Electoral Count Act that would make it harder to block the certification of a presidential election, would widen a ban on TikTok on government devices, and would extend a December 27 deadline for Boeing  to secure federal safety approvals for two new versions of the 737 MAX airplane.

Legal and political fights have kept the Title 42 policy in place for months longer than the Biden Administration intended when it moved to end its use last May. More than a dozen GOP states sued to keep it in place, and a federal judge in Louisiana extended the policy’s use indefinitely on the grounds that the Biden administration didn’t use the proper administrative procedure to end it.

In November, a federal court in Washington ruled in a separate lawsuit that the policy’s use was illegal from the start as it violates federal refugee laws by denying migrants at the border a chance to ask for asylum.

Research contact: @WSJ