House passes fourth '16 appropriations bill

House passes fourth '16 appropriations bill
© Greg Nash

The House on Wednesday passed the fourth of a dozen spending bills for fiscal 2016, funding the Justice and Commerce departments as well as science agencies.

Lawmakers approved the $51.4 billion measure in a 242-183 vote, after adopting amendments regarding gun control, immigration, U.S.-Cuba relations, Guantánamo Bay and marijuana.

Passage of the bill came after the White House threatened to veto the legislation because of insufficient funding levels, capped by sequestration, and controversial policy riders that would undermine President Obama’s policy to normalize relations with Cuba, relax gun restrictions and block funds for the transfer of any detainees at Guantánamo Bay prison to the United States. 

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Republicans included $50 million for a new Community Policing Initiative requested by the president. Of that amount, the original bill would have allocated $15 million intended for body cameras, which is much less than the $50 million the White House requested from Congress for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

Before final passage, the House adopted an amendment by voice vote from Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) that would add another $10 million for police body cameras. 

Overall, the bill provides $1.3 billion more than the current spending level — $661 million less than Obama’s request.

Congressional Democrats and the White House lambasted Republicans for underfunding agencies like the U.S. Census Bureau, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the bill.

Funding for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, for example, would be cut, the White House said, which is a program that’s meant to help end U.S. reliance on Russia for transporting astronauts to the International Space Station.

Low funding for the Census Bureau could increase the amount taxpayers will have to contribute to the 2020 Decennial Census by billions of dollars, the White House added.

The House debated nearly 100 amendments to the bill over the course of two days. Lawmakers adopted a litany of proposals to lift gun control restrictions, such as blocking the Obama administration from banning certain armor-piercing ammunition.

Members adopted an amendment from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) that would prevent the Justice Department from blocking state laws legalizing medical marijuana, by a vote of 242-186. But an amendment from Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) to block the use of funds to interfere with implementation of any state laws regulating marijuana, including for recreational use, fell short in a vote of 206-222.

The House also rebuffed an attempt to strike a provision in the bill that prohibits exports to members of the Cuban military and intelligence service, as well as their families.

Rep. Sam FarrSamuel (Sam) Sharon FarrMedical marijuana supporters hopeful about government funding bill Marijuana advocates to give away free joints on Capitol Hill DEA decision against reclassifying marijuana ignores public opinion MORE (D-Calif.), the amendment’s sponsor, said the bill's language applying the export ban to Cuban military and intelligence service members’ families would apply so broadly it would constrain trade with Cuba.

“It hurts American businesses, and it hurts Cubans. Let's stop living in the past,” Farr said.

But Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a Cuban-American and senior appropriator, argued the beneficiaries of normalized relations shouldn’t be the Cuban military and intelligence service that has committed brutal acts.

“It is the same military and intelligence services that brutalized the Cuban people, that beat pro-democracy demonstrators, that beat a number of American citizens in Panama recently, that illegally smuggles weapons, which has members of that Cuban military under indictment here in a U.S. federal court for the murder of American citizens,” Díaz-Balart said.

The House also voted to preserve language in the bill that maintains a prohibition on transferring Guantánamo Bay detainees to the U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler’s (D-N.Y.) amendment to do away with the provision failed by a vote of 170-256.

Debate over the wide-ranging bill also focused on immigration. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) successfully added an amendment to block funding for the Justice Department to continue its legal defense of Obama’s executive actions on immigration. The administration is currently facing a lawsuit from 26 states, led by Texas, challenging the constitutionality of the executive actions.

Nineteen Republicans who are primarily centrists and represent districts with large Hispanic populations joined all Democrats in opposition to King’s amendment.

The lower chamber has eight remaining appropriations measures to pass by October. It has already passed bills funding military construction programs and the Department of Veterans Affairslegislative branch operations and the Department of Energy

The House will begin consideration of a fifth spending bill later Wednesday for the departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.

House appropriators have also released a bill funding the Pentagon and another funding the State Department and foreign operations.

The Senate, meanwhile, has not yet passed any appropriations bills, all of which could be blocked by Democrats who are unsatisfied with sequestration funding levels. 

Congress has not cleared each individual spending bill under so-called “regular order” since the 1990s. Lawmakers have instead regularly turned to measures funding all or part of the federal government at a time.