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SD Sens. Rounds, Thune focus on military for favorable vote on $1.7 trillion spending package

Entering the final days of the current Congress, a $1.7 trillion appropriations bill funding major government operations until next year is on its way to President Joe Biden's desk.

U.S. Sen. John Thune, right, delivers remarks while U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, left, listens during a panel called "Check-in From Washington, DC" during Dakotafest in August in Mitchell.(Matt Gade/Republic)
Sen. John Thune, right, delivers remarks while Sen. Mike Rounds, left, at the "Check-in From Washington, D.C." panel during Dakotafest in August 2021 in Mitchell.
Mitchell Republic file photo
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Considering Democratic control of the House and Oval Office, the $1.7 trillion appropriations bill racing through Congress during the lame-duck session overcame its only meaningful roadblock on Thursday, Dec. 22, passing the 60-vote threshold in the Senate with a 68-29 result.

The “omnibus” bill, a name referring to the legislation’s time-sensitive consolidation of the 12 separate appropriations bills that each fund one major area of government operations, will last through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, 2023.

“While liberals in Congress have passed two partisan spending bills that cost our country nearly $3 trillion, I strongly opposed both of those efforts,” Sen. Mike Rounds said in a statement to Forum News Service. “This bill is actually necessary to make certain government can operate.”

The legislation lays out federal discretionary spending, which represents about 30% of total federal outlays — the rest, including Social Security, Medicare and the interest on the public debt, is mandatory spending that does not need to be individually appropriated by Congress each year.

Thune, Rounds point to direct-to-South-Dakota programs as one reason for their vote

Among the Republicans voting for the expansive set of spending priorities were South Dakota Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds.

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“We must honor the nation’s commitment to our men and women in uniform by providing them with the mission-critical resources they need and deserve,” Thune wrote in a Dec. 22 statement to Forum News Service. “In South Dakota, as Ellsworth Air Force Base and its surrounding communities continue to prepare for the incoming B-21 bomber mission, they are depending on Congress to make these much-needed, time-sensitive investments.”

Defense makes up the largest portion of this discretionary spending, with $858 billion going to the nation’s defense and related issues in the coming year, a 10% increase over the past fiscal year. Non-defense discretionary spending increased by 4% over the past fiscal year.

Some of the main pieces of the defense spending portion included $118 billion toward VA medical care, $44 billion to Ukraine and NATO and $41 billion for responding to domestic natural disasters.

“While I recognize some folks disagree with this, I believe it is most cost effective, and best for the nation and world, to defeat Russia in Ukraine, rather than allowing the Russian army to make advances into NATO member countries which would obligate the United States to put American boots on the ground and further risk American lives,” Rounds told Forum News Service.

Rounds specifically pointed to $335 million in funding for construction projects at Ellsworth Air Force Base, $4.8 billion for the development of the B-21 bomber and millions in investments for agricultural producers as three concrete examples of how the legislation helps South Dakotans.

“All of these items would not be possible without this government funding bill,” Rounds said. “Secured in this bill were many wins for our nation.”

Senate Republicans criticize ‘last-minute’ budgetary process

Still, Thune, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, was not without qualms over the process that birthed the bill, which blew past the Sept. 30 deadline for annual appropriation legislation. The 4,155-page bill was first released to legislators by Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democratic senator from Vermont, in the early morning hours of Tuesday, Dec. 20.

“While I’m glad these policies are one step closer to becoming law, it’s shameful that they were left to last-minute wrangling on Capitol Hill,” Thune continued. “Legislating is about priorities, and by waiting until the very last moment to process Congress’s most basic responsibility of funding the military, Democrats have clearly demonstrated where their priorities lie.”

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In total, the Senate Republican Caucus cast 18 votes in favor and 29 votes against the spending proposition, with the remaining three in the caucus not casting votes.

Explaining their votes against the package, some in the caucus acknowledged the importance of investing in the nation’s military and other government operations yet chose to vote against the expansive package for its flouting of normal budgetary timelines.

"At the 11th hour, Congress has jammed through a $1.7 trillion, 4,000+ page package stuffed with special interest provisions,” Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska wrote in a public statement. “While I appreciate the critical investments this bill makes in our national defense, we cannot continue to rubberstamp wasteful spending with zero transparency.”

Incoming Republican-controlled House won’t get say until next year

Once the appropriations behemoth moved through some amendment drama and ultimately passed relatively unaltered through the Senate, the omnibus bill made its way to the House of Representatives, where it passed by a 225-201 vote on Friday, Dec. 23.

Nine House Republicans joined all but one House Democrat in voting in favor.

South Dakota Rep. Dusty Johnson voted against the legislation. While he acknowledged support for the investments in Ellsworth and the codifying of changes to the Electoral Count Act — as well as the inclusion of two of his own bills in the expansive package — he remained opposed to the legislation partly due to its increase in discretionary spending with the nation nearing $32 trillion in debt.

“It’s an increase in discretionary spending, and it doesn't include additional dollars to truly secure the border,” Johnson said. “There are some dollars to deal with the crisis but not dollars to secure the border. And I think that's a substantial flaw of the bill.”

One potential option for Senate Republicans to avoid a government shutdown while also increasing their party’s leverage over the budgetary process would have been to bridge the gap until the beginning of the next Congress, with a GOP-controlled House, using another continuing resolution — a temporary measure that extends current budgetary authority over a certain amount of time until replaced by the new annual appropriations bill.

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“[The American people] chose a new direction for our country by electing a House Republican majority for the 118th Congress. If you did really cared about the people, why wouldn't you let everybody read [the bill]?... Why wouldn't you simply wait 11 days?” Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the odds-on favorite to serve as speaker next session, said to House Democrats during the debate period on Dec. 23. “Just wait 11 days. The people have spoken.”

Screen Shot 2022-12-23 at 1.49.10 PM.png
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, speaks against the 2023 omnibus appropriations bill during debate.
Contributed / GOP Leader

While passing next year’s budget is technically the job of the current Congress, and the shuffling of committees and the politicking of tight margins in the coming House may have made that a lengthy process, Johnson said he would have supported the idea of waiting to decrease overall discretionary spending.

“Ultimately, for me, what made up my mind is just the sense that we are so close to the start of the [next] Congress,” Johnson said. “I do think that the American people wanted to see some change in how our country is governed. They clearly made their voices heard at the ballot box and gave Republicans control of the House.”

Rounds defended the decision by he and several of his colleagues, pointing specifically to the defense spending as well as billions in funding boosts to U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“This is clearly not a perfect bill and there are many items included in this legislation that I do not support, which made this vote difficult,” Rounds said. “However, when faced with the option of an appropriations bill with strong funding for national defense or a continuing resolution that would not be beneficial to South Dakota and would be detrimental to our national security, the choice was clear.”

MORE BY JASON HARWARD
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Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or jharward@forumcomm.com.

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at jharward@forumcomm.com.
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