The Senate overwhelmingly passed the 12-part omnibus spending bill 72-26 on Thursday, funding the government through the end of September. The $1.1 trillion package sailed through the House on Wednesday and is expected to be signed quickly by President Obama.
Significantly, the bill prevents another government shutdown that would have begun at midnight on Saturday. It allocates $1.012 trillion in discretionary funding to various departments and agencies, while also providing overseas contingency funding.
Two of the bill's lead negotiators, Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski and ranking member Richard Shelby, hugged on the Senate floor as the vote wrapped up Thursday night. The two were involved in tough negotiations for nearly a month before announcing the final omnibus legislation on Monday.
The omnibus faced criticism from outside conservative groups for failing to further reduce federal spending and for a rushed process. The final votes were taken on the bill less than 72 hours after the 1,582-page legislation was initially released to members.
But within the halls of Congress, complaints about the bill were scarce and often minor. Following last October's fiscal crisis, the appetite for another federal shutdown was meager, and arguments over major policy items that could have derailed the omnibus—including over the Affordable Care Act and abortion—were largely left for another day.
On Thursday evening, 17 Republicans joined with the entire Democratic caucus to pass the legislation. An astounding 12 Republican senators who supported the omnibus had actually voted against the budget agreement that set the $1.012 trillion top-line number for appropriators last month.
Among the 26 nays on the omnibus—all from Republicans—Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska are members of the Appropriations Committee that wrote the bill. Before the vote, McConnell strode up to Mikulski and vigorously shook her hand, sitting down with her for several minutes, before voting no on both a motion to proceed to the bill and on the final vote itself.
Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., who is locked in a tough Senate primary against two of his House colleagues, was the only appropriator to oppose the measure in the House.
In the early afternoon Thursday, it appeared that a small group of Republicans might force the Senate to use all the time allotted under the rules between a procedural vote and final passage, pushing a vote until Saturday.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas offered two amendments related to defunding the Affordable Care Act late in the day, but he was rebuffed by Mikulski, who objected.
By 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle agreed to bring up the vote, allowing members to leave town for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday recess a day early. The Senate will return on Jan. 27.
Now that the bill has passed both chambers, federal agencies can begin the work of subtracting from their new spending figures the amount of funds they have used since the fiscal year began in October. The omnibus affects funding for everything from food-safety inspections and NASA operations to modernizing Navy ships.
The Defense Department faces the most difficult task, having lost billions of dollars in fiscal 2014 from its fiscal 2013 allocation, though the omnibus does provide more cash for the department than it would have had under sequestration.
The bill also provides a partial fix for the controversial cuts to military pensions that were included in the December budget agreement. The omnibus eliminates those cuts for both disabled veterans and for recipients of survivor's benefits.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who opposed the Ryan-Murray budget in December, said he voted against the omnibus because Congress had missed another opportunity to further cut spending. He also expressed concern about busting open the sequestration caps, which were set to take effect this month.
"I'm just so despondent that, instead of building off the gains we made in 2011 with the Budget Control Act, we unwound it and we still never have addressed the mandatory spending issues," Corker said.
Now that Congress has approved a two-year budget agreement and funded the government through October, Corker said he worries that Republicans have lost their leverage to make big changes to mandatory spending programs, particularly entitlements. "I think the air's out of the balloon on fiscal issues. This today was the"—Corker made an explosion noise—"culmination of having no real focus on fiscal issues for some time," he said.
Michael Catalini contributed to this article.
This article appears in the January 17, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.