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US senators avert partial shutdown

By AFP - Mar 10,2024 - Last updated at Mar 10,2024

WASHINGTON — US senators voted last week to green-light a government funding package that keeps open several key departments threatened with closure this weekend, a major step toward finalising the 2024 federal budget after months of deadlock in the deeply divided Congress.

The $460 billion package got broad cross-party support, although there were objections from nearly two dozen Republicans who had been holding up the agreement in a row over spending cuts, along with one Democrat who voted against the deal.

Congress was supposed to approve the 12 annual bills that make up the federal budget five months ago, and without Friday's vote the lights would have gone out across several departments and agencies this weekend.

But the Senate staved off the shutdown with a deal on the first six bills allowing the departments or agencies dealing with agriculture, commerce, justice, science, environment, housing and transport to function until the end of the fiscal year, on September 30.

Some of the most contentious battles — over the bills funding defense, labour, health and homeland security — have been put off for a second package that needs to reach President Joe Biden's desk by March 22.

A partial weekend shutdown would have threatened an array of government functions, including food inspections, veterans' benefits or scientific research — although in reality federal funding rules allow a few hours' grace and a brief lapse would not have sparked any immediate closures.

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer in a statement ahead of the bill's passage hailed the legislation as a "major step" toward a fully funded government.

"To folks who worry that divided government means nothing ever gets done, this bipartisan package says otherwise: It helps parents and veterans and firefighters and farmers and school cafeterias and more," he added.

The first package had a relatively smooth path through the House on Wednesday, although figures on the Republican right voiced disappointment that it failed to address several of the party's policy priorities.

The agreement adds an extra $1 billion for a federal nutritional program for low-income mothers and their babies, a key Democratic funding priority, increases rental assistance and boosts spending on veterans.

There are cuts of up to 10 per cent for agencies regularly in Republican crosshairs, including the FBI, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

 

'Deep cuts' 

 

"This legislation... imposes deep cuts to the EPA, ATF and FBI, which under the Biden administration have threatened our freedoms and our economy, while it fully funds veterans' health care," Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson said, praising the bill.

Republican squabbling over amendments to the legislation and "earmarks" — provisions circumventing the normal competition process to direct funds to lawmakers' pet projects — are threatened to delay the vote, however.

Conservatives were demanding that the leadership in both parties allow a vote on reinstating an earmark ban overturned by Democrats in 2021, effectively stripping more than $12 billion from the bill.

They highlighted examples of what they see as profligate spending, including $1 million for an environmental justice center in New York, $4 million for a waterfront walkway in New Jersey and $3.5 million for a Thanksgiving parade in Michigan.

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