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Senate approves sweeping bill on defense, domestic spending
The Senate on Thursday approved a massive spending bill funding the Pentagon and critical domestic agencies in a significant victory for appropriators and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that could lower the chances of a government shutdown.
In an 85-7 vote, the Senate approved its third "minibus" package of spending bills.
This one was particularly important because it included funding for the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Education, which is often a difficult package because of fights over abortion and other issues. Senators were able to avoid those fights in this case.
"I am proud of what these bills contain and how the Senate has crafted them. I want to particularly thank Chairman [Richard] Shelby and Senator [Patrick] Leahy," McConnell said ahead of the vote, referring to the top two members of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The vote marked a big win for Senate leadership, which has not been able to pass funding for the Departments of Labor, Education or HHS, outside of an omnibus, since 2007.
Senators are scrambling to avoid needing to pass another omnibus bill, which would roll the 12 traditional spending bills into one piece of legislation, after Trump warned in March that he would not sign a similar bill again.
With Thursday's vote the Senate has now passed nine of the 12 appropriations bills needed to fund the government past Sept. 30. The $854 billion Labor-HHS-Defense-Education bill alone accounts for roughly 60 percent of the 2019 appropriations bills.
The defense and health appropriations bills, in particular, are a lightning rod for controversial, partisan amendments from both sides.
But leadership made a deal earlier this year to avoid attacking so-called "poison pill" proposals, which would threaten bipartisan support, to the funding bills.
The Senate, for example, rejected an amendment from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to cut off federal funding from Planned Parenthood. They also didn't take up amendments tied to the administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policies or a bipartisan proposal that would have reined in Trump's ability to revoke security clearances.
The Senate and the House will still need to merge their competing bills once the House returns from Labor Day.
Senators say their staffs have been in touch over the break. But lawmakers will face a legislative time crunch to get an agreement on the three packages as well as a short-term continuing resolution (CR) that is expected to be needed to fund part of the government.
Congress has until Sept. 30 to pass legislation keeping the government open and avoiding the third shutdown of the year. Even as Trump appears to be keeping a shutdown on the table, McConnell and GOP senators are scrambling to prevent one happening less than two months before a midterm election where their party's control of Congress hangs in the balance.
But a fight remains over how to fund the Department of Homeland Security past September.
GOP leadership had signaled they would likely need to use a continuing resolution (CR) to keep part of the government, including DHS, open into the next fiscal year.
That would allow leadership to punt a fight over funding Trump's controversial U.S.-Mexico border wall until after the midterm election.
But it's unclear if Trump is on board with that strategy.
Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), a close ally of Trump's on immigration, said at a White House event earlier this week that the Senate would turn to funding DHS directly after it wraps up work on the Defense-Labor-Health and Human Services-Education package.
"We're going to have defense and HHS," he said. "And then right after that we'll do DHS and that's where the debate will be."
And Trump has kept a potential shutdown on the table.
"I would be willing to 'shut down' government if the Democrats do not give us the votes for Border Security, which includes the Wall! Must get rid of Lottery, Catch & Release etc. and finally go to system of Immigration based on MERIT!," Trump said in a tweet last month. "We need great people coming into our Country!"