House passes spending package with border wall money

The House passed a $789 billion defense spending package Thursday to fund the Pentagon, veterans benefits and nuclear programs, while supporting what GOP leaders have dubbed a “down payment” for President Donald Trump’s border wall.

In a 235-192 vote, the chamber wrapped up work on the Make America Secure Appropriations Act, which bundles four of the 12 spending bills to fund the government beyond Sept. 30. Five Democrats voted for the measure, including two from the border state of Arizona.

About 80 percent of the bill’s funding goes directly to the Pentagon — a total of more than $658 billion, which greatly exceeds Congress’ current spending limits and would require lawmakers to strike a budget deal to achieve that higher allocation.

“We ask more of our military than ever before, and we need to support them here at home and abroad,” House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) said on the floor. “This four-bill package is carefully crafted to fund our critical military priorities.”

The rest of the funding would goes toward the departments of Veterans Affairs and Energy, as well as the legislative branch, military construction and water infrastructure.

Although the spending package does not include funding for the Department of Homeland Security, the inclusion of money for 70 miles of barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border became one of the bill’s most contentious provisions.

The measure’s passage also caps several weeks of sparring on other contentious items, such as Congress’ war authorization power and the military’s rules on transgender troops.

Before the bill reached the floor, House leaders scrapped language that would sunset the 2001 authorization of military force, instead replacing those provisions with a directive for the Trump administration to submit a report on the AUMF.

While Democrats were unsuccessful in their attempts to reverse the switch-up, even some GOP appropriators are saying a breakthrough could be possible now that there is a bipartisan bubbling of support for revisiting the 16-year-old war authorization.

House leaders approached Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) to help advance the watered-down AUMF language — a sign, the appropriations cardinal says, that sentiment is slowly changing.

“That’s the leadership reaching out and beginning to finally realize: Wait a minute, there’s something wrong here, when there’s this much bipartisan support,” Cole said.

Still, Democrats hammered their GOP counterparts for ditching the war powers provisions, which had been debated and legitimately approved in committee.

“The bipartisan voices calling for action will not be silenced,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said on the floor this week. “But this is just one example of regular order being abandoned in order to advance an extreme agenda.”

While lawmakers submitted more than 330 amendments to the package, House leaders only allowed floor debate and votes on about half of those.

The highly partisan package now heads to the Senate, where it is expected to be substantially reshaped, if not ignored altogether, as spending bills in the upper chamber require Democratic votes.

Congress has until Sept. 30 to complete all 12 spending bills. And House Republican leaders told lawmakers this week that they could create another package after August recess with the remaining eight spending measures, which are far more difficult to pass within the divided GOP conference.

Republican appropriators are hopeful to pass more bills on the floor, though many acknowledge that a stopgap spending bill or an all-encompassing bundle is more likely in the three remaining workweeks before the end of September.

The fate of the security "minibus" was uncertain just days earlier. Several conservatives were threatening to oppose the package if GOP leaders did not allow a vote on a controversial amendment to ban Pentagon-funded gender-reassignment operations.

House GOP leaders turned to Trump, who was eager to defuse that issue to see funding for his border wall materialize in the package. The president agreed to step in, and then took a step much further, tweeting Wednesday morning that he would ban all transgender men and women from serving in the military.

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