By Susan Davis
WASHINGTON - With little protest or debate, theU.S. House approved on a bipartisan 359-67 vote a massive spending bill to fund the federal government until October.
"It's pretty remarkable for a 'do nothing' Congress that this enormous piece of legislation is going through the Capitol like a greased pig," said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a government watchdog group that tracks federal spending.
The nearly 1,600-page spending bill includes all 12 of the individual annual spending bills packaged into one $1.012 trillion "omnibus" spending bill. It includes the entire breadth of the federal government's discretionary spending outside of what it is mandated to spend on entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.
The Senate is expected to approve the bill on Friday, sending it to President Obama for his signature before the stopgap funding expires Saturday. The bill will have gone from unveiling to law in just six days, while the normal appropriations process is structured to take months and allow for more lawmaker input.
This omnibus is even more extraordinary in that it includes all 12 of the annual spending bills. It's the first time since at least 1989 - when legislative records are readily available - that Congress did not complete any of the individual spending bills in a fiscal year.
GOP support for the omnibus has infuriated outside fiscal conservative and Tea Party groups, who philosophically oppose legislation of that size because they contend that there is no way lawmakers could understand what's in it.
A similar "read the bill" sentiment grew out of the contentious debate over the sweeping 2010 Affordable Care Act, which Tea Party activists recalled in voicing opposition to the omnibus.
"While Americans suffer the consequences of Obamacare, Congress is trying to rush through another massive bill before reading it," said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, who characterized the bill as a "monstrosity."
Prominent conservative lawmakers, including Tea Party-aligned Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Arkansas Senate candidate Rep. Tom Cotton, announced their opposition, underscoring the potential political sensitivity of voting in favor of the spending package in an election year.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., holding up the thick bill on the House floor, criticized the House for voting on a bill "that nobody has read." But he acknowledged that Congress was moving forward because without a spending bill in place, the government faces another shutdown and a return to unpopular across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester. "The alternatives are even worse," he said.
McGovern cited a concern held by lawmakers in both parties that the details of the omnibus are likely to trickle out after the bill has become law. "I'm willing to bet in a week or so we're going to read an article about something being in the bill that nobody knew about," he said.
However, the two-year budget deal approved in December that set Congress on the course to this omnibus has also given Congress the best chance in two decades to return some regular order in the budget process for next year.
The bipartisan agreement set top-line spending figures for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 at $1.012 trillion and $1.015 trillion, respectively.
Congress had been working without any agreement on what the federal government should be spending each year, which led to the shutdown and ultimately the agreement to end it.
With a top-line spending figure locked in, House and Senate negotiators have an easier path to moving the 12 appropriations bills individually and in time to meet the Sept. 30 deadline. House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said on the floor Wednesday that is exactly what he intends to do. If lawmakers are successful, it would be the first time since 1994 that Congress accomplished one of its fundamental responsibilities.
"That's the one potential silver lining," said Ellis.