Short-term federal spending patch held up by Tennessee senator over crack pipe controversy

Unusual secrecy surrounds negotiations over spending bills

By: - February 10, 2022 7:06 pm

A view of the U.S. Capitol in April 2012. (Architect of the Capitol)

WASHINGTON — Federal government funding runs out in just a week, Congress hasn’t cleared a short-term measure to avoid a shutdown, despite broad bipartisan support — and the latest holdup is over claims the Biden administration wants to pay for crack pipes as part of  “safe smoking” kits.

The stopgap spending bill passed the U.S. House earlier this week, but is stalled in the Senate amid objections from Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn over a new grant program aimed at reducing the risks associated with drug use. 

“If this is President Biden’s plan to address drug abuse, our nation is in serious trouble,” she said in a statement Wednesday announcing her hold on the three-week funding patch.

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If the Senate is forced to move through procedural votes next week to send the short-term funding bill to President Joe Biden’s desk, it may not meet a Feb. 18 midnight deadline, leading to a lapse in government operations. While objections like this are often quickly resolved, there’s no guarantee at a time when federal government funding is on the verge of expiring.

The new program that concerns Blackburn, administered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration within the Health and Human Services Department, would provide grant funding to organizations throughout the country to distribute items from a pre-approved list. 

Blackburn, and several other Republican lawmakers, have taken exception to many of the items on the list, including the safe smoking kits. They say those kits could include glass smoking devices, and they vehemently object to that as a government expenditure.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and the Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Dr. Rahul Gupta attempted to rebuff the claims, saying in a statement that “no federal funding will be used directly or through subsequent reimbursement of grantees to put pipes in safe smoking kits.” 

They added that the Biden administration is providing the grant funding as part of a comprehensive plan that includes “proven harm reduction strategies like providing naloxone, fentanyl test strips, and clean syringes, as well as taking decisive actions to go after violent criminals who are trafficking illicit drugs like fentanyl across our borders and into our communities.” 

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also sought to calm the controversy Wednesday, saying that “a safe smoking kit may contain alcohol swabs, lip balm, other materials to promote hygiene and reduce the transmission of diseases like HIV and hepatitis.”

“And all of these harm reduction services that will be supported by these programs are intended to save lives from an epidemic that we know is devastating to communities across the country,” Psaki continued. 

The statements didn’t seem to convince Blackburn, whose hold on the short-term government funding bill illustrates the challenge of waiting until the last few days to bring must-pass government funding bills to the floor. 

Typically, at least one senator places a “hold” on the bill, preventing it from moving quickly to a final passage vote. The senator usually does this to bring attention to an issue they feel hasn’t gained enough traction, opting to threaten a shutdown unless they get what they want. 

More time needed

The three-week funding extension is needed to give congressional leaders more time to draft bipartisan versions of the dozen bills that Congress must pass every year to increase spending or change funding policy. 

Democrats and Republicans announced Wednesday they’d reached a “framework” agreement that will allow appropriators to begin working to draft those final bills. But unlike past spending agreements, lawmakers haven’t disclosed how much those bills will total or how the funding will be split between defense and nondefense accounts. 

Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican, told reporters Thursday the two political parties have agreed to parity, or equal increases between defense and nondefense spending. 

But he declined to detail how much that would increase federal spending for the current fiscal year, or give any other details on the agreement that likely comes in around $1.5 trillion. 

The secrecy is not typical of appropriators who are traditionally more bipartisan and more transparent about the committee’s work. 

The fact that no lawmaker, staffer or lobbyist leaked details of the spending numbers within hours of the agreement, signals how fragile this year’s process has become. And how easily it may all fall apart. 

Years of drama

Biden’s first budget proposal to Congress was welcomed by Democrats after four years of drama-filled negotiations with the Trump administration and a series of government shutdowns.

Republicans weren’t as receptive, rejecting what they viewed as lopsided spending increases. 

GOP lawmakers argued that a 16.5% increase for domestic and foreign aid accounts and a 1.6% increase for defense funding was the wrong way to go. 

Acting White House budget director Shalanda Young said the larger increase to nondefense would “begin reversing a decade of chronic underinvestment in priorities, like public health” and “restore nondefense appropriations to its historical average share of the economy.” 

The two political parties also disagreed about how federal dollars should be spent. 

Biden’s budget request called on Congress to eliminate decades-old provisions in the annual funding bills that prevented the federal government from paying for abortions, with limited exceptions.

Democrats agreed and removed the so-called Hyde amendment as well as similar provisions. The move infuriated Republicans, who said Democrats needed to add those provisions back to the bills if they wanted to avoid a full year of stopgap spending bills. 

Shelby went as far as saying in November that a lot of Republicans would like a full-year stopgap spending bill because it would mostly continue spending levels and policies last agreed to in December 2020 during the Trump administration. 

After pushback from the Pentagon and dozens of organizations about the havoc created when Congress doesn’t pass new, full-year funding measures, Shelby and other Republicans began advocating for a full-year spending deal with Democrats. 

New framework

Both sides seem to have reached agreement this week, though the precise elements of that framework have not been disclosed.

If negotiators can reach agreement on the dozen funding bills themselves, those would become public before final votes in the House and Senate. 

But first, Congress needs to clear the three-week government funding bill, to avoid a shutdown when the current stopgap bill expires mid-month.

If Blackburn releases her hold on the measure, Congress would have until March 11 to hold final votes on the omnibus spending package.

If that passes, Congress will have completed its job five months behind schedule.

The delayed nature of the appropriations bills is nothing new, however.  

The yearly slog has become something of a running joke in Washington, D.C. where lawmakers haven’t gotten their work done on time since 1996. 

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Jennifer Shutt
Jennifer Shutt

Jennifer covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include congressional policy, politics and legal challenges with a focus on health care, unemployment, housing and aid to families.

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