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Congress OKs a two-year, $500 billion spending bill

WASHINGTON, D.C. — It will be a few more weeks before it is known how $500 billion in new federal spending will be doled out, following Congressional votes last week that resulted in approval of hundreds of billions of dollars for defense and domestic programs, including $1.1 billion for dairy farmers and much needed aid for hurricane-hit regions.

It’s the biggest increase in spending in almost a decade. It was midnight drama on Capitol Hill as Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky delayed a Senate vote on the massive bipartisan budget deal last Thursday night, which led to a brief government shutdown when no deal was reached at that deadline. It was the second shutdown in the past three weeks.

The Senate voted 71-28 with wide bipartisan support around 1:45 a.m. Friday, sending the measure to the House, which voted 240-186 nearly four hours later, with President Donald Trump tweeting at 8:40 a.m.: “Just signed Bill!”

The delay in passing the spending package by the midnight deadline had shut down the government for several hours, catching the Office of Management and Budget off guard and leaving tens of thousands of federal workers uncertain if to report to work Friday.

Three weeks ago Congress passed its fourth “continuing resolution” since September to again give lawmakers time to hash out a spending package. But the vote came three days after a government shutdown as Congress has been trying for months to break the cycle of budget dysfunction.

The new two-year, 700-page budget deal hikes federal spending this year by more than $500 billion for both the military and domestic programs, including nearly $90 billion in disaster relief for areas recovering from last year’s destructive storms. It also suspends the government’s borrowing limit through March 1, 2019.

The nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget projects the United States will have a $1.5 trillion budget deficit by next year, worrying some policymakers. “It’s fiscally dangerous, but politicians are willing to trade their favorite priorities for someone else’s and put it all on a credit card,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the group.

Included in the House vote was yet another deadline of March 23 to give 12 different appropriation committees time to write a detailed budget doling out line-item funding to government agencies.

Agriculture provisions

Packed into the spending deal are increases in subsidies for cotton production and $1.1 billion for the dairy industry, pushed by a three-year effort of lobbying legislators who made seed cotton eligible for Price Loss Coverage. The program allows payments to growers when crop prices drop below certain levels, starting with the 2018 crop year.

According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the measure also “removes the $20 million cap on livestock-related crop insurance policy costs to allow for the creation of new dairy-focused insurance products. Removal of the cap will also ultimately allow more livestock to be insured as part of the Whole Farm Revenue Production Program."

The American Farm Bureau stated, “By including measures to improve policies for cotton and dairy farmers, Congress has taken important steps to address two of our biggest farm bill priorities. And important was eliminating the cap on USDA livestock risk management tools to provide more options in the livestock sector.”

Left out of the legislation was funding for DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, for 690,000 immigrant children brought to the country at an early age by their parents crossing the Mexican-U.S. border illegally. Called “Dreamers,” they are hoping someday to win American citizenship.

Unless an agreement is reached by March 5, these people face losing work permits approved by former President Obama. The program has been rescinded by Trump, who set the deadline, telling Congress to approve a deal or saying the Dreamers face deportation.

But on Friday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took the first steps to begin debating immigration, following through on his promise to Senate Democrat Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York to address the measure.

Also left out was money for Trump’s southern border wall and funding for immigration security, which is expected to face another brutal Congressional battle in the coming weeks. Since September, Congress and the White House have battled over the budget and immigration security spending, which Trump said he would not approve unless lawmakers allot him billions for the border wall.

In January, he made Congress a deal that offered a pathway to citizenship for more than 1.8 million young immigrants in exchange for funding his promise of a 2,000-mile, $15 billion border wall.

The bulk of the $90 billion in the two-year spending agreement covers health care priorities pushed by the Democrats. A preliminary list includes:

•An additional $2 billion for the National Institutes of Health

•$6 billion over the next 24 months to combat the national opioid crisis, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called a “public health emergency”

•$4 billion for veterans’ hospitals and clinic improvements

•$7 billion in a new two-year reauthorization of community health centers that serve 24 million Americans, many in rural areas

•An extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program to 10 years, up from just six years approved in the January stopgap bill

Johnathan Hladik, policy director for the Center for Rural Affairs, told Farm World, “We are very pleased to see support for federal health programs included. Community health centers are essential providers of health care in rural communities. Many were facing an uncertain future, and this should bring much needed stability to those who need it most.”

Hours before the Senate vote, Paul took to the floor to object to the spending plan, demanding a vote on his amendment that would demonstrate how the two-year deal breaks GOP pledges to rein in federal spending. “I can’t in all good honesty, in all good faith, just look the other way because my party is now complicit in the deficits,” he said.

In the end, Republican lawmakers refused to allow him to offer his amendment and the Senate voted almost two hours later. Paul was criticized by fellow Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who called Paul’s grandstanding “a colossal waste of everybody’s time. He never gets a result.”

The bill’s passage also extends 48 different tax credits that expired at the end of 2016. It expands pilot programs meant to test the value of in-home health care for some Medicare patients, and it expands the ability of Medicare Advantage plans to offer so-called “Telehealth,” in which doctors treat patients over the phone or Internet. It would allow Medicare providers who are part of an accountable care association to offer patients cash bonuses as incentives for healthy behaviors.

The total cost, Congressional aides say, could exceed $560 billion, and lawmakers will meet by the March 23 deadline to hash out some revenue-raising offsets.

Trump was expected this week to announce his 2019 budget, which like his 2018 proposal should call for larger cuts in domestic spending and again include his request of billions to build the border wall and more for defense.