Congress swiftly passed a tax and spending package to fund every corner of the government and extend a series of tax breaks Friday, sidestepping divisive policy fights from refugee resettlement to Georgia’s water wars.
Easy votes in the House and Senate were big victories for congressional leaders, who negotiated the compromise for months after the fall’s budget deal set spending levels but not all the intricate details. President Barack Obama signed the $1.1 trillion spending measure and $650 billion in tax breaks into law.
Of Georgia’s 16 House members and senators, only two voted against the bill — Monroe Rep. Jody Hice raised concerns from the right, while Lithonia Rep. Hank Johnson objected from the left.
The rest were mollified by a last-minute tweak to report language accompanying the bill that could have upset the balance in the legal fight among Georgia, Alabama and Florida. Georgia’s congressional delegation and Gov. Nathan Deal convinced leaders across the Capitol to remove innocuous-sounding language inserted by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., requesting a Department of Justice report on water basin “violations.” Georgia leaders feared the language could have been used against the state in ongoing lawsuits about how much water Georgia draws from two river basins.
“I’ve learned a lot about water wars in the last 36 hours,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters, according to National Journal. “We don’t want the thumb on the scale in this thing.”
As a result, the delegation nearly unanimously supported the bill. It was still a tough vote, given that the bill did not halt Syrian refugees, Planned Parenthood funding or environmental regulations — as Republicans would have liked — and lifted a four-decade ban on oil exports — which Democrats cast as a giveaway to Big Oil.
“They stuck their neck out for us,” Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson said of House and Senate leaders.
“Being a successful senator and a successful member of Congress, it’s all about reciprocity and relationships. … I think Georgia flexed its muscle over good relationships.”
The Georgians also celebrated other priorities for the state. The bill delivered the $21 million requested by the Obama administration for the Port of Savannah expansion project, while increasing a pot of unpledged construction money the port could compete for early next year as the dredging project with an estimated price tag of $706 million trudges on.
“We’re going to work hard for it,” said Rep. Buddy Carter, a Pooler Republican who represents the area. “We need it.”
The bill provides $114 million for a U.S. Department of Agriculture poultry lab in Athens and $37 million for a new federal court house in Savannah, according to Isakson’s office. Georgia Republican Sen. David Perdue pointed to military priorities funded under the bill, including the J-STARS surveillance aircraft based at Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins and the A-10 fighter based at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta.
Perdue joined Isakson in voting against a deal this fall that set funding levels higher than Congress’ Republican budget. But now that the spending levels were set, Perdue said “I just felt like you had to stand up for the people in Georgia and make sure their interests were taken care of.”
While conservatives bemoaned the fact that most of their desired “policy riders” did not make it into the bill, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Coweta County Republican, touted under-the-radar conservative wins against the Affordable Care Act.
The bill includes a delay of taxes on medical devices and high-cost health insurance plans, and blocks the Obama administration from adding money to a “risk corridor” program attacked by Republicans as a bailout for health insurers.
“Two years ago we were getting reamed because we were not stopping Obamacare – reamed,” Westmoreland said. “Two years ago if we had done this, people would have been having parades for us, hugging our necks.
“And so they just want things instantly, and I understand that. Look, I would love instant things too. But this institution moves very slow. And when you’re negotiating with (Senate Minority Leader) Harry Reid and Obama, they’ve got two of the three hands.”
Obama told reporters he was pleased overall.
“I do want to thank Congress for ending the year on a high note,” Obama said at a news conference, referring to Friday’s package and new laws on education and highways.
“I’m not wild about everything in it — I’m sure that’s true for everybody — but it is a budget that, as I insisted, invests in our military and our middle class without ideological provisions that would have weakened Wall Street reform or rules on big polluters.”
Lawmakers then skipped town for the holidays, with members of Congress returning to their districts and Obama leaving for his annual vacation in Hawaii.
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