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Spending bill remains contentious as it heads to Senate for consideration

The Capitol is seen before dawn Wednesday after a night of negotiating on the government spending bill, in Washington, March 21, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

As a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill wound its way through Congress Thursday, the Trump administration aggressively pushed the legislation as a win for the president and the American people, but some critics say significant boosts in military and domestic spending will compound federal deficits that have already surpassed troubling levels.

The 2,232-page bill, which would fund the government through September, passed in the House on a 256-167 vote. It now goes to the Senate, where lawmakers aim to vote on it by midnight Friday, about 28 hours after it was released, to avert a government shutdown.

Administration officials are highlighting increased spending for the military, border security, veterans, law enforcement, and infrastructure. The White House also maintains that the bill fulfills conservative principles and provides support for working families.

“Is the president going to sign the bill?” Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney asked himself at a press briefing Thursday. “The answer is yes. Why? Because it funds his priorities.”

In accordance with a bipartisan budget deal reached before the last funding deadline, the bill provides about $700 billion for defense spending and $591 billion for domestic programs in 2018. Mulvaney readily acknowledged that the bill diverges greatly from the 2018 budget the president proposed, saying the White House never expected to get everything it wanted with a slim majority in the Senate.

“We don’t control all the government,” he said. “We do not control the Senate under current rules. Therefore, we have to give the Democrats something.”

There are aspects of the bill that both Republicans and Democrats can cite to declare victory, according to Glenn Altschuler, a professor of American Studies at Cornell University, and not much that should prove politically damaging to either side.

“What you have is an election year budget that has holiday goodies for each side that of course significantly increases the deficit, but the electorate has demonstrated it will not punish any elected official” over deficit spending, he said.

Some elements of the bill—including increased funding for opioid addiction programs, additional resources for school security, and a fix for some gaps in the background check system for firearm purchases—have broad bipartisan support. Other provisions that have been included or left out remain highly contentious.

The White House promoted the bill’s $1.6 billion in “wall funding” as a step toward fulfilling the president’s pledge to build a border wall, but it is far short of what Trump requested and Democrats imposed several restrictions on how those funds can be spent. More disappointingly for Democrats, the bill does not include any relief for young undocumented immigrants who had been protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Trump had planned to end the program earlier this month, but court rulings have so far stalled that effort.

“The contours of this budget have been pretty much baked in for quite some time, and I think it will come and go quickly without attracting much attention from the electorate,” Altschuler said.

Republican leaders in Congress stressed the increased military spending.

“The fundamental question that comes down in this bill is whether we’re going to preserve the primacy of the American military in the 21st century. That’s really what’s going on right here,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said at a news conference Thursday.

Many rank-and-file Republicans saw it differently, claiming that their party failed to achieve what they promised voters they would do when they were elected.

“Shame, shame. A pox on both Houses - and parties,” tweeted Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Thursday, noting that it took more than two hours to print out the whole bill in his office. “$1.3 trillion. Busts budget caps. 2200 pages, with just hours to try to read it.”

The House Freedom Caucus sent a letter to President Trump Wednesday urging him to reject the bill because it fails to meet their demands on immigration, health care, and other issues.

“The American people elected us not to buckle, but to deliver,” they wrote.

The deal has drawn similarly mixed reactions from Democrats, with some outraged by the omissions and others defending the concessions they got as a realistic compromise given the circumstances.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., praised negotiators for obtaining funding for national security and health care and restricting border security spending, but he called the bill a “missed opportunity” on immigration.

“But ultimately, Republicans refused to compromise to protect DREAMers as part of this bill, once again showing a disdain for our immigrant communities and their inability to stand up to President Trump,” Crowley said in a statement. “I promised the brave young men and women I’ve met that I wouldn’t support funding legislation that didn’t allow them to achieve the American Dream. I kept that promise today.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., took a more glass-half-full perspective.

“Every bill takes compromise, and there was plenty here, but at the end of the day we Democrats feel very good because so many of our priorities for the middle class were included,” Schumer said. “From opioid funding to rural broadband, and from student loans to child care, this bill puts workers and families first.”

With the midterm elections fast approaching, Democrats fighting to revive DACA protections fear this omnibus bill may the last piece of substantive legislation a deeply divided Congress can pass this year. However, the need to elect Democrats to push a DACA fix through in 2019 could help drive progressive voters to the polls in the fall.

“I don’t think that the issue is likely to be revived legislatively,” Altschuler said. “I think it’s certain to come up in the election itself as a significant motivator to turn out Hispanic voters, younger voters for whom it is at the front of the agenda.”

David Williams, president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, an organization that has supported much of Trump’s tax and deregulation agenda, slammed the omnibus bill over the process that created it and the spending it authorizes.

“This despicable brand of sausage-making reflects the very worst of government,” Williams said in a statement. “Republicans rightly criticized the process behind Obamacare for crony kickbacks and a lack of transparency, only to use similar maneuvers.”

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Mulvaney portrayed the domestic spending increases as a necessary evil to get the bill through the Senate.

“This is what a bill looks like when the Democrats get to take their pound of flesh to fund the military,” he said.

While the White House heaped responsibility on the minority party for provisions that stray from the president’s principles, Democratic strategist Matt McDermott said Republicans have nobody to blame but themselves.

“Congressional Republican seem completely unable to use their majority to govern effectively,” he said prior to Thursday’s vote. “If Republicans want to pass this omnibus bill, they should do their job as the majority and whip votes for the bill. It can't be expected that Democrats save Republicans from themselves on every funding vote.”

The secretive drafting of the bill and the last-minute release of it may feed a Democratic narrative in November about the need to rein in a reckless GOP Congress and president.

“The lesson is clear,” McDermott said. “There's only one way to restore sanity to Congress and ensure the transparency and accountability that voters demand -- electing a Democratic majority in November.”

Though some on both sides touted specific appropriations in the bill, fiscal conservatives say the unrestrained spending could add up to an insurmountable financial burden on future generations.

“It should not have taken a $143 billion spending hike to grease the wheels of the appropriations process and compel policymakers to do their job,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, in a statement. “These levels of both defense and nondefense discretionary spending are more than Presidents Trump or Obama ever asked for, and in an era of historically high and unsustainable debt, it sets a dangerous precedent.”

A CRFB report released earlier this month projected a trillion-dollar deficit in 2019, rising to $1.7 trillion in 2028, driven by tax cuts and planned spending increases. The group estimates that would result in a federal debt of $29.4 trillion by 2028, approximately 101 percent of gross domestic product.

“With trillion-dollar deficits set to return next year and trillion-dollar interest payments likely to appear within a decade or so, we can’t keep busting the budget with massive omnibus appropriations bills.,” MacGuineas said. “Instead, we need to couple reasonable discretionary levels with significant new revenue and mandatory spending reductions and reforms.”

Not all economists are troubled by the prospect of ballooning deficits.

“We do have to take with a grain of salt the idea that inflation is around the corner and something terrible is going to happen,” said Eileen Appelbaum, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, noting that some experts have been warnings about a deficit disaster for years even as inflation and interest rates remained under control.

She believes there is more slack in the economy before there is a risk of inflation, and past experience has taught policymakers how to counter it when it does come. Government debt, she argued, should not be viewed the same way as personal debt.

“It creates an illusion that the government needs to live within its means like people,” she said.

Appelbaum is more concerned with where the spending and the savings go than the total price tag. In the tax reform bill, she saw too much of the benefit directed to the wealthy, but the omnibus bill appears to include some much-needed funding for programs that help workers.

“The increases in domestic spending, the direction of spending on education, I think these are very positive for working people and the economy,” she said, adding, “What I don’t understand is why we need an increase in military spending that is as large as at the start of the Iraq war.”

Voters have shown little interest in the minutiae of a deficit debate.

“I think they care about it in the abstract,” Altschuler said. “I think they could care about it if it is, over time, linked to increasing interest rates which cause an economic slowdown.”

In a bad economy, Democrats could argue skyrocketing deficits are part of a failing Republican agenda, but such a reversal is unlikely to happen by November. As long as the economy stays strong, Altschuler expects warnings about the federal debt will not gain much traction with the public.

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