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Green Christmas: Congress passes $1.1 trillion spending, $630 billion tax packages

The package yielded big wins, and losses, for both parties, while true believers on the right and left will head home for the holidays disappointed.

Any semblance of drama over the budget compromise dissipated on Friday, with lawmakers eager to flee the Capitol to catch flights home for Christmas.
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

WASHINGTON — Congress capped its 2015 doing something novel: compromising on major legislation without even getting close to shutdown territory. On Thursday and Friday, Congress approved a $630 billion tax package and a $1.1 trillion spending bill, respectively. Together, they will determine the country’s spending and revenue levels in the upcoming year.

Earlier in the week, there was some doubt as to whether House conservatives would get on board with a large spending bill, called the omnibus, and if progressives would vote for a GOP-led bill. But any semblance of drama dissipated on Friday, with lawmakers eager to flee the Capitol to catch flights home for Christmas.

The House approved the spending package 316 to 113, with 150 Republicans joining 166 Democrats to vote yes. Reps. Tom Emmer and Keith Ellison were the only “no” votes in the Minnesota delegation. The Senate then approved the omnibus 65 to 33, with the backing of both Minnesota senators, sending the package to President Obama’s desk.

In typical Washington fashion, both Democrats and Republicans tried to claim victory. But this was the rare occasion where each side’s declarations of triumph were mostly legitimate: the package yielded big wins, and losses, for both parties, while true believers on the right and left will head home for the holidays disappointed.

What’s in it?

The spending bill — the product of weeks of negotiation between top Republicans and Democrats — will appropriate more money for some programs in 2016 than ever. The National Institutes of Health will get a $2 billion bump, NASA will see its funding go up by six percent, rural housing funds will be higher than ever, and general military spending will see a significant bump.

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There was give and take, of course. Democrats accepted a major GOP policy priority — the lifting of the 40-year-old ban on exporting U.S. oil. But Democrats also fended off some policy riders Republicans desperately wanted, like provisions to defund Planned Parenthood.

The tax package, passed Thursday, will extend popular tax breaks, like the earned income tax credit and the enhanced child tax credit. It will also suspend the medical device tax in the Affordable Care Act for two years — something Minnesota politicians have been pushing for years. But House Democrats, including leader Nancy Pelosi, balked at what they called corporate tax giveaways included in the bill.

What’s of interest to Minnesota in these massive bills? The suspension of the medical device tax is arguably the biggest direct impact. The state is home to around 700 large and small medical device firms, which have long claimed they could hire more people if the tax were lifted. The bill also appropriates $1 billion for programs to protect the Great Lakes, which Klobuchar and other Midwestern lawmakers are greeting happily in the shadow of a growing invasive carp threat.

The omnibus also repeals mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for certain agriculture products, like beef and pork. U.S. agriculture industry advocates, like Rep. Collin Peterson, tend to like COOL because consumers tend to favor U.S. products, while U.S. trade partners and free trade advocates dislike it.

Beyond that, the Minnesota renewable energy sector will be pleased that tax credits for wind and solar power industries have been extended. And lawmakers have touted increased funding for the Bureau of Indian Education, which could be a boon for struggling schools in Minnesota.

Lawmakers react

As the dust settled Friday afternoon, Minnesota lawmakers struck very different tones on the legislation that passed. For Rep. Erik Paulsen, an ally of Speaker Paul Ryan, the package wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough. “There’s always things you wish were addressed that didn’t get addressed,” he said. The Ways and Means Committee member maintained the end-of-year package was fiscally responsible, as members of his own party argued it was a toxic combination of higher spending and tax cuts.

“It’s divided government,” Paulsen said. “The fact that [Ryan] was able to negotiate quickly and with all sides and reach a deal expeditiously, without the drama, I give him high marks.”

In a statement, Emmer explained his no vote in a rather roundabout way. He praised several GOP-backed items on the “pro-growth” omnibus: lifting the oil export ban, strengthening the visa waiver program, raising military funding levels. Still, Emmer said he voted against it because of grave concerns over “an enormous and growing $18 trillion debt that our children and grandchildren will be burdened with… I have great issues with new spending without plans to slow debt increases.”

In a statement, Rep. Betty McCollum advanced the biggest talking point on the Democratic side: that this bill is a huge win for them, simply because it could’ve been so much worse. “Republicans hold their largest congressional majority in 66 years, but Democrats forced the most harmful conservative policy riders out of this bill,” McCollum said. “Democrats delivered increased investments for clean air, clean water, and our nation’s parks… this bill demonstrates that Republicans are still unable to effectively govern.”

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While some Democrats cheered, Ellison hammered the omnibus. There was chatter earlier in the week that Ellison, and the Progressive Caucus he co-chairs, would attempt to gin up some meaningful Democratic opposition to the funding bill, primarily over the oil export provisions. Ultimately, only about 20 percent of the Progressive Caucus ended up voting no on the omnibus.

After the vote on Friday, Ellison said in a statement that the omnibus “does not provide anywhere near the funding levels we need to provide housing, health care, education and basic medical research for Americans.”

“While this spending bill removes some of the harm from the partisan riders included in the original draft, it fails to ensure that no American lives in grinding poverty, that everyone has access to quality education and that our roads, bridges and subway systems are safe and reliable,” he said.

Rep. Tim Walz struck a more conciliatory note: “If I’d written it, it wouldn’t have looked like this, but that’s not how this works,” Walz said, adding that Ryan negotiated the deal in good faith with Democrats. “It’s not supposed to work that way. In the end a compromise was reached, there’s good things in there, there’s good research in there, and it funds things accordingly.”

“That’s democracy,” Walz said.