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House easily passes stopgap funding bill, averting shutdown

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi points from the podium
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) speaks during a news conference on Sept. 18, 2020, on Capitol Hill.
(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

In a sweeping bipartisan vote that takes a government shutdown off the table, the House passed a temporary government-wide funding bill Tuesday night, shortly after President Trump prevailed in a behind-the-scenes fight over his farm bailout.

The stopgap measure will keep federal agencies fully up and running into December, giving lame-duck lawmakers time to digest the election and decide whether to pass the annual government funding bills by then or kick them to the next administration. The budget year ends Sept. 30.

The 359-57 vote came after considerable behind-the-scenes battling over proposed add-ons. The final agreement gives the administration continued immediate authority to dole out Agriculture Department subsidies in the run-up to election day. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) retreated from an initial draft that sparked a furor with Republicans and farm-state Democrats.

Instead, in talks Tuesday, Pelosi restored a farm aid funding patch sought by the administration, which has sparked the ire of Democrats who said it plays political favorites as it gives out bailout money to farmers and ranchers.

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In return, Pelosi won COVID-related food aid for the poor, including a higher food benefit for families whose children are unable to receive free or reduced lunches because of school closures due to the pandemic. Another add-on would permit states to remove hurdles to food stamps and nutrition aid to low-income mothers that are more difficult to clear during the pandemic.

The deal permitted the measure to speed through the House after a swift debate, which should ensure smooth sailing in the GOP-held Senate before the Sept. 30 deadline. There’s no appetite on either side for a government shutdown.

On Monday, Democrats released a version of the stopgap measure that did not contain the farm bailout provision, enraging Republicans and putting passage of the measure in doubt. It became apparent that Pelosi did not have the votes to pass it — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) dismissed it as a “rough draft” — and negotiations continued.

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Democrats complain that the Trump administration has favored Southern states such as Georgia — a key swing state and home of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue — and larger producers in distributing bailout funds. Farmers are suffering from low commodity prices and the effects of higher tariffs imposed by Trump. The president announced a new $13-billion allotment of bailout funding at a political rally in Wisconsin last week.

“The Trump administration has proven they cannot be trusted to distribute payments fairly,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, top Democrat on the Agriculture Committee. She added that the Agriculture Department doesn’t need the authority to meet farm bill obligations and will get the money in November anyway.

But other Democrats, including endangered House incumbents in Iowa and Minnesota, pressed for the farm aid.

“Now is not the time to be playing politics with aid to farmers or the assistance needed to save our families and local economies from economic disaster,” said freshman Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa).

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The measure is the bare-minimum accomplishment for Capitol Hill’s powerful Appropriations committees, which pride themselves on their deal-making abilities despite gridlock in other corners of Congress. It came after bipartisan negotiations on a huge COVID-19 relief package imploded and appear unlikely to be rekindled — especially since the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has upended U.S. politics.

“We need to keep the government open, but we also need additional COVID relief for the American people,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).

The legislation, known as a continuing resolution, or CR, would keep every federal agency running at current funding levels through Dec. 11, which will keep the government afloat past the election and possibly reshuffle Washington’s balance of power.

The measure also extends many programs whose funding or authorizations lapse Sept. 30, including the federal flood insurance program, highway and transit programs and a long set of extensions of health programs, such as a provision to prevent Medicaid cuts to hospitals that serve many poor people.

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It also finances the possible transition to a new administration if Joe Biden wins the White House and would stave off an unwelcome COVID-caused increase in Medicare Part B premiums for outpatient doctor visits.

Congressional aides close to the talks had depicted the farm provision as a bargaining chip to seek comparable wins for Democrats, but Pelosi’s requests for provisions related to the census and funding for states to help them carry out elections this fall were denied by GOP negotiators.

The underlying stopgap measure deals with the 30% of the federal government’s day-to-day budget that goes to Cabinet agency operations funded by Congress each year. The annual appropriations process broke down in the Senate this year, and it’s unclear — but unlikely — that the $1.3 trillion in agency spending bills will be enacted this year, even in a postelection lame-duck session, especially if Biden is elected.

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In the past, both Democrats and Republicans have sought to use government funding deadlines and must-pass temporary funding bills as leverage to try to win concessions elsewhere on Washington’s agenda. Such efforts invariably fail.

Republicans in 2013 did so in a failed attempt to prevent implementation of the so-called Obamacare health law, and Senate Democrats returned the favor in 2018 in a futile effort to force debate on permitting immigrants brought into the country illegally as children to remain in the U.S.

But Pelosi says she won’t attempt any such confrontation.

“We’re not about shutting down government,” Pelosi said Monday night on MSNBC. “And it’s not a lever.”


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