Border Wall, not Pandemic, Given Top Billing in Senate Budget Offer

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, second from right, talks with the newly elected senators, from left, Sen.-elect John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., Sen.-elect Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., and Sen.-elect Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., before a Monday meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Ignoring continued uncertainty over two seats in Georgia, the Senate spent Tuesday morning appointing leadership positions and addressing next year’s budget.

To avoid a government shutdown going into 2021, some kind of budgetary effort will need to be passed by mid-December. The 12-point budget proposal released Tuesday by Senate Republicans is worth about $1.3 trillion, including expenditures like items for outgoing President Donald Trump’s border wall but no explicit mention of money to help state and federal agencies during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

“By and large, these bills are the product of bipartisan cooperation among members of the committee,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby said in a statement this morning, along with details on how money will be spent if the majority gets their way.

“Time after time, we have demonstrated our willingness to work together and get the job done,” the Alabama Republican added. “We have before us the opportunity to deliver for the American people once again.”

Details on spending include $69 billion for Homeland Security, with almost $2 billion for Customs and Border Protection, per the agency’s request, for 82 miles of border wall funding.

But in a preview of what could be a nasty, preinauguration fight, Senate Appropriations Vice Chair Patrick Leahy pointed to border-wall funding, among other items, as a nonstarter for the minority side of the chamber.

“This additional funding is on top of the $15 billion American taxpayers have already paid toward a useless border wall — money that could have been better invested elsewhere to address real homeland security needs, health care, infrastructure, and Covid-19 requirements,” the Vermont Democrat said in a statement.

Leahy went on to note that the agency’s total allocation amounted to “a slush fund for this administration’s extreme enforcement and removal activities.”

As for health care sections of the bill, Leahy said they fail to properly address the ongoing coronavirus outbreak while continuing Trump-era policies of nixing funding for agencies and organizations that offer abortion as part of family planning services.

“It is imperative that we do what is necessary to stop this pandemic from spreading,” Leahy added. “Whether this takes the form of separate legislation, or additional emergency titles added onto these bills, I remain ready to do what is necessary to help a country in crisis.”

Leahy also highlighted some of the bipartisan measures, saying he was glad to see some areas “where we were able to come to agreement.”

A spokesperson for the House Appropriations committee, the crucial second half of the national budgeting process, said they are “reviewing the Senate’s bills and are prepared to quickly begin bipartisan negotiations” in the hopes of avoiding a shutdown.

“There is strong momentum to complete the fiscal year 2021 appropriations process this year, and Chairwoman Nita Lowey will do everything she can to make that happen,” the spokesperson said in an email.

While amendments will face debate, the upcoming lame-duck session as President-elect Joe Biden waits to enter office in January could also lead to another stopgap being passed to hold spending at its current levels until the issue can be addressed when the 2021 session starts.  

Within the chamber, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer were both reelected to their positions with little fanfare Tuesday, but control of the chamber won’t be sorted out until a Jan. 5 runoff election on two seats in Georgia.

Republicans are favored to win, but if Democrats take both seats it would tip the chamber 50-50, with tiebreaker control going Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

“Grateful to my Senate Republican colleagues for their unanimous confidence in me to continue serving as Leader,” McConnell tweeted last week. “We have a lot more to do to continue fighting for working families and strengthening our great country.”

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