House overwhelmingly passes bipartisan spending deal to avert government shutdown

The deal was negotiated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a chaotic series of events over the past several days. Talks abruptly collapsed late Friday just as a deal appeared within reach, and Pelosi released a partisan bill on Monday that was swiftly rejected by Republicans. But on Tuesday morning, Pelosi and Mnuchin resumed negotiations, and Pelosi announced late Tuesday that they had reached a deal.

The sticking point was demands from the Trump administration and Republicans — along with a handful of largely farm-state House Democrats — for an infusion of money into a farm bailout program that Trump has used to repay farmers hurt by his trade policies. In exchange for agreeing to the bailout money, Pelosi secured about $8 billion for a variety of nutrition programs, including for schoolchildren affected by the coronavirus pandemic — a significantly larger sum than had been on the table Friday.

The short-term spending legislation — known as a “continuing resolution,” or CR — would keep the federal government funded through Dec. 11.

“We have reached an agreement with Republicans on the CR to add nearly $8 billion in desperately needed nutrition assistance for hungry schoolchildren and families,” Pelosi said. “Democrats secured urgently needed assistance for schoolchildren to receive meals despite the coronavirus’s disruption of their usual schedules.”

There was no immediate comment from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), but in light of the strong vote in the House, the Senate looked likely to approve the legislation.

Congress needs to pass a spending bill by Sept. 30, the last day in the 2020 fiscal year, or large portions of the government would begin to shut down. The bill also must be signed by Trump ahead of the shutdown deadline.

Even with much attention on Capitol Hill focused on the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, there was little appetite on either side for brinkmanship over a government shutdown.

Republicans secured provisions in the stopgap spending bill to replenish a $30 billion borrowing fund called the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), a New Deal-era program that Trump has used to reimburse farmers harmed by his trade policies and tariffs. Democratic leaders opposed the additional money, partly because they say Trump could use it for political purposes.

At a campaign rally in Wisconsin last week, Trump announced a new package of aid for farmers from the CCC, which he has used in an unprecedented way. Under previous administrations, the CCC was used for much more limited purposes, and some Democrats charge that Trump has essentially turned it into a slush fund.

But there are also several endangered House Democrats who support the program, including Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer of Iowa, freshman members who flipped GOP-held seats in 2018 and now face tough reelection races. Axne and Finkenauer both signed a letter along with Iowa’s two Republican senators, Charles E. Grassley and Joni Ernst, blasting exclusion of the CCC money from the bill Pelosi had released on Monday and declaring, “Our farmers should not be used as a bargaining chip for negotiations.”

The new deal includes some new guardrails on CCC funding, to protect against the possibility it could somehow go to oil producers.

In recent years, Congress has frequently failed to complete the 12 annual spending bills that fund government agencies on time, instead resorting to short-term bills or even allowing the government to shut down. There are often fights about what policy provisions will be attached to these stopgap bills because in some cases, they are the only legislative vehicle pending that is guaranteed to pass into law.

Mnuchin reiterated in congressional testimony Tuesday that the administration supports a new stimulus package, including another round of $1,200 checks to individuals. But there is little sign that will be happening anytime soon.

And despite some speculation that broader coronavirus relief measures could be attached to the stopgap spending bill, that did not materialize.

Ahead of the vote, lawmakers of both parties spoke on the House floor to bemoan Congress’s tendency to resort to short-term spending bills instead of getting its most basic work of funding the government done on time. But most everyone agreed that the alternative — a government shutdown — would be worse.

“During this trying time of a pandemic, the last thing the United States of America needs right now is a lapse in government funding,” said Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.).

One member — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — voted “present” on Tuesday, while the “no” votes came almost entirely from Republicans.

While a majority of the federal budget is made up of massive entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security that continue automatically from one year to the next, funding for agencies such as the Pentagon, the Health and Human Services Department and the Education Department must be renewed annually by Congress.

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