How Congress Wasted ‘Months of Precious Time’ Passing 2024 Spending Bills

How Congress Wasted ‘Months of Precious Time’ Passing 2024 Spending Bills

Jack Gruber-USA TODAY

The Senate passed a $1.2 trillion, six-bill spending package just after 2 a.m. on Saturday and President Joe Biden signed it later that day, ending an unusually drawn-out process of funding the government for the fiscal year that began nearly six months ago.

The Senate’s 74-24 vote came a couple of hours after a midnight deadline, meaning that federal funding technically lapsed for part of Saturday, but the White House Office of Management and Budget had stopped any shutdown preparations once it became apparent that the Senate would be able to pass the funding legislation.

Biden says Congress’s work isn’t finished: The president said the package will help strengthen the economy and national security. “This agreement represents a compromise, which means neither side got everything it wanted,” he said in a statement. “But it rejects extreme cuts from House Republicans and expands access to child care, invests in cancer research, funds mental health and substance use care, advances American leadership abroad, and provides resources to secure the border that my Administration successfully fought to include. That’s good news for the American people.”

But he added that Congress has more work to do, calling on lawmakers to pass a bipartisan bill providing billions in aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan and a bipartisan border security plan that fell apart in the Senate amid Republican opposition. “It’s time to get this done,” Biden said.

'Wasted months of precious time’: The Saturday action capped a particularly prolonged and acrimonious clash over federal funding that started more than a year ago. Now that the full-year appropriations bills have been passed it’s worth taking a moment to remember how the process unfolded — and whether the results of the challenging process might portend changes ahead.

After Republicans won control of the House, conservatives decided to try to leverage the need to raise the debt ceiling last year to extract spending cuts and policy changes. They pursued that strategy despite having only a narrow majority, little internal unity and a Democratic-led Senate and White House that opposed what they warned would be devastating cuts and painfully extreme policies.

That strategy resulted in a clear defeat. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy ultimately cut a deal with the White House that could essentially have eliminated the need for much of the subsequent appropriations fight. Instead, hardline conservatives unleashed chaos, infuriated that the deal fell short of their demands. McCarthy tried to finagle a way to appease his right flank and cut additional spending but he wound up being ousted by a band of ultraconservative rebels, leading to weeks of uncertainty and legislative inaction. In the end, McCarthy’s eventual replacement, House Speaker Mike Johnson, stuck closely to the contours of the deal his predecessor had made, including a topline total of $1.66 trillion for discretionary spending, again inviting a revolt from the right.

Democratic congressional leaders used the weekend vote to emphasize the necessity of working across the aisle in a divided government. Senate Appropriation Chair Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat who has been in the senate for 31 years, lauded her Senate Republican counterpart, but took some jabs at those on the far right, noting that the people who sank Congress into such dysfunction “claim to care a lot about fiscal responsibility, but the constant chaos that they create is the opposite of fiscal responsibility.”

She wondered aloud what the months of turmoil had accomplished. “When House Republicans stopped everything to renegotiate the deal they struck with the president, when they insisted on partisan poison bills, when they listened to the loudest voices on the far right who, let's be real, were never going to vote for any bipartisan funding bill, that gets us nowhere,” she said before the final vote. “It wasted months of precious time, far better spent crafting bills that grow our economy and protect our country and make things better for folks back home. And after all of that delay, how different ultimately was the outcome?”

Some on the right may be asking much the same question. The House Freedom Caucus had railed against the spending bills to relatively little effect, and Johnson has been willing to sidestep obstructionist tactics on the right by using a voting process that requires a two-thirds majority, relying on Democratic votes. “The Far Right Lost Badly and Wants Its Revenge,” The New York Times headlined it analysis. But just what that revenge might look like isn’t clear. It’s unclear, for example, whether a surprise threat by Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia to oust the speaker will gather any momentum among her colleagues, many of whom want to avoid a repeat of last fall’s speaker-election circus.

“Anything that we thought we could do, we’ve done. So, open to your ideas,” Republican Rep. Bob Good of Virginia, chair of the Freedom Caucus, told USA Today, acknowledging his group’s lack of leverage. “Obviously, we’re not sitting here thinking, ‘Here’s all the things we should’ve done that we didn’t do.’ If we knew those things, we would have done them.”

What’s next: Congress is now on a two-week Easter break. When lawmakers return, they are likely to again take up the issue of aid to Ukraine.

And while the budget and appropriations process for fiscal year 2025 has begun, we may not see any progress for quite some time. The just-passed spending bill “could be the last government funding action seen in Congress for a while, at least until lawmakers are likely forced to pass a stopgap spending bill later this year that heads off yet another shutdown threat at the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1,” Politico noted the other day. “With a presidential battle looming in November, serious work on funding bills for next fiscal year is unlikely until after Election Day.”