WASHINGTON — Following weeks of late-night negotiations in the U.S. Capitol, lawmakers have forged an agreement to keep the federal government running until Sept. 30.
The legislation largely leaves out demands made by Republican President Donald Trump, who released a draconian budget proposal in March.
The final $1 trillion, 1,665-page deal includes billions of additional dollars for border security and the military — both Trump priorities — but no money is allocated for a southern border wall, a key campaign promise of the president.
And while Trump called for large cuts in dozens of agencies and the elimination of key programs, most agencies will continue to be funded at current levels under the deal. A number of other programs, including ones frequently used by Vermonters, will see slight funding increases as compared with 2016 numbers.
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was the lead Democratic negotiator on the budget deal.
Negotiations took place around the clock, seven days a week for several weeks. In a Monday afternoon press conference, Leahy thanked his top staffers for their unyielding commitment to finding fiscal consensus.
“I joked with them this afternoon when I came into my office,” Leahy told reporters as he pretended to swing a pendulum. “I said, ‘You are feeling very sleepy.’ I don’t think they’ve had any sleep.”
Charles Kieffer, Leahy’s top aide on the Appropriations Committee, has been so heavily immersed in negotiations over the past weeks that his lawn has become wild and unkempt. It wasn’t until Monday morning — after a deal was finalized — that Kieffer was finally able to to dust off his lawnmower and cut the grass, which was 11 inches high.
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., thanked Leahy — and Keiffer — for their work in the Monday press conference.
“[Leahy’s] an old hand on the Approps Committee,” Schumer said. “But this is his first time as ranking member and he’s passed the test with flying colors — he gets an ‘A.’”
Trump wanted to take an axe to important government services. In Vermont, dozens of programs would have been impacted — from Lake Champlain cleanup to agricultural assistance. Leahy was able to help remove “160 poison pill riders” from the legislation that would have had significant consequences for the state and the nation.
Among the provisions Leahy worked to kill was language that would have greatly restricted access to abortion services. Other provisions would have restricted travel and economic activity with Cuba, overturned a study on the gender wage gap and defunded the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — a Wall Street watchdog founded by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., after the 2008 financial crash. The bill also retains funding for Planned Parenthood, despite efforts by conservatives to kill it.
While Republicans had also floated the idea of revoking federal funds from sanctuary cities — like Montpelier and Burlington — that language was taken out of the final deal. In addition, the deal prevents the Department of Justice from superseding state marijuana laws.
The budget agreement is expected to be approved on the House and Senate floors later this week. If passed, the deal would fund the government for the rest of the 2017 fiscal year, through Sept. 30. It would also avert a government shutdown that would shutter key federal services and leave government employees without work and pay.
While the president looked to cut the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent, the final congressional deal only cuts the EPA by 1 percent, or $80 million. No EPA officials would be let go under the final congressional plan.
Crucially, the Lake Champlain Basin protection program remains funded at its current level of nearly $4.4 million annually. The money will allow the state to continue mitigating phosphorus runoff in the state. There will also be no cuts to the $3.45 million taken by Vermont to help control the spread of the invasive sea lamprey in Lake Champlain.
The National Sea Grant Program, which has partnered with the University of Vermont to manage fisheries, water quality and invasive species in Lake Champlain and surrounding watersheds, was funded at $63 million. A separate $439,000 increase in a water quality budget item will support American river cleanup, including on the Missisquoi, a tributary of Lake Champlain.
The EPA’s State Revolving Funds were also saved from cuts in the congressional budget deal. Set at 2016 levels, the EPA will receive $1.4 billion for clean water programs and $863 million for drinking water programs, which support everything from rural water systems to technical cleanup assistance.
Because Leahy tweaked the funding formula for the Heritage Partnership Program, the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership, which aims to preserve historic parts of New York and Vermont around Lake Champlain, may see more money in the future.
Julie Moore, the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, said that while she is still reviewing the details of the congressional plan, the state would fare well for the rest of 2017. Roughly 40 percent of the funding for the state’s environmental programs come from the EPA.
“I’m pleased that they have extended funding through the end of the fiscal year,” Moore said Monday. “It gives us a degree of certainty that we have been lacking for much of the year.”
Trump’s proposal to slash the U.S. Department of Agriculture by 21 percent was also brushed off by budget negotiators.
The president wanted to eliminate the Water and Wastewater loan and grant program, which provides funding for drinking water systems, waste water treatment and solid waste disposal.
In the congressional deal, USDA water grants are increased by $27.6 million.
The Tree and Wood Pests Program will be funded at $54 million. The program supports Vermont efforts to combat invasive species, including the Asian long-horned beetle, which decimates native hardwood trees, including maple, birch, elm and willow.
Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts said he had been closely following the budget negotiations, and said he had been worried that a government shutdown would impact crucial services, like the federal meat inspection program. Fifteen percent of the state agricultural budget comes from the federal government.
“With the caveat that we are still looking over the details, the agency is pleased with what we have heard so far out of Washington,” Tebbetts said. “It looks like the government will sustain funding for important programs to our farmers and residents.”
DRUG TREATMENT AND LAW ENFORCEMENT
The congressional budget agreement allocates more than $1 billion to fight the opioid crisis, a more than $650 million increase from 2016.
The money will, among other things, fully fund the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016, a law that overhauled the federal response to heroin addiction in America. It will support everything from drug courts and treatment programs to prescription drug monitoring efforts. Community Health Centers in rural, underserved areas will receive a total of $50 million to treat drug addiction and expand mental health services.
The Centers of Disease Control will get an additional $42 million to prevent drug overdoses and disseminate new prescribing guidelines. In addition, the Office of National Drug Control Policy is allocated $388 million — a more than $8 million increase over 2016 — to reduce drug trafficking and addiction.
The deal spares Department of Justice programs that have benefitted Vermont police departments, including bulletproof vest grants and the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) hiring program.
Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions targeted programs for women. Senate negotiators not only preserved the dozen or so grants funded by the Violence Against Women Act, but actually increased support to the highest funding levels in the history of the program.
More than $480 million will be allocated to fight abuse, including $35 million for rural domestic violence programs. Leahy, who authored the 2013 reauthorization of the program, has helped secure millions of dollars for Violence Against Women Act grants in Vermont.
A series of federal programs aimed at bolstering the economics of struggling, rural regions were also spared from draconian cuts in the congressional bill.
The Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, a Treasury Department program that leverages private investment in rural communities, would see a $14 million increase over last year, totaling $248 million.
In 2016, the CDFI Fund gave three large grants to Vermont entities: the Vermont Community Loan Fund ($1.25 million), the Flexible Capital Fund L3C ($700,000) and Rutland West Neighborhood Housing Services ($500,00).
Rural Business Development Grants, another driver of economic activity in rural states like Vermont, will receive $24 million for the rest of the fiscal year. The service offers grants ranging from $10,000 to $500,000 to businesses in rural areas with fewer than 50 employees.
The Small Business Administration is funded at $887 million for the rest of the fiscal year, a $14 million increase from last year. The program has recently offered budgeting and bookkeeping assistance to Red Wagon Plants in Hinesburg and the Vermont Evaporator Company, a Montpelier-based business that produces maple sugar evaporators.
Community Development Block Grants will see $3 billion in federal dollars for the rest of year, and the state is expected to get roughly $7.1 million by Sept. 30, according to Leahy’s spokesman, David Carle.
The Northeast Kingdom relies heavily on the REAP program, created by Leahy in the 2000 Farm Bill. The program designated a handful of economically struggling rural zones across the country, including the Kingdom — which has received at least $68 million in USDA development grants since 2000.
The Northern Border Regional Commission, which helps fund economic projects in Essex, Orleans, Caledonia, Lamoille, Franklin, and Grand Isle counties, will see $10 million for the rest of 2017, a $2.5 million increase over last year.
The Weatherization Assistance Program, a popular program for low-income Vermonters, will see a $13 million increase over 2016 levels, while the rental housing assistance programs are given $15 million more compared with last year.
In budget talks, Leahy also insisted — and succeeded — in dropping Trump’s proposal to eliminate funding for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance program.
The final deal also includes a $105 million increase for Amtrak, the train service that has a daily Vermonter train between St. Albans and Washington. (Vermont is also slated to receive $210 million in federal highway funds this fiscal year.)
As for arts funding, negotiators blocked Trump’s call for cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. The final deal includes $2 million in additional funding for arts programs as compared with last year.
While the short-term spending bill expires at the end of September, Schumer and other Democrats expect similar cooperation once talks heat up for fiscal year 2018.
“This bodes well for the 2018 budget, it bodes well for working together,” Schumer said. “And, frankly, I hope the president learns this lesson as well, because thus far, on his major forays — taxes and healthcare — there’s been virtually no consultation with Democrats and you’ve seen the result.”
Leahy said the Trump administration never sought his advice.
“I did not get a call from anyone in the White House regarding this,” Leahy said. “In all my years on appropriations — in both Republican and Democratic administrations — I’ve got calls urging or suggesting or asking. I heard from no one on this one.”
Vermont legislators may hold a special session in the fall — should Congress enact big federal cuts in 2018. Neither House Speaker Mitzi Johnson nor Senate President Tim Ashe responded to inquiries from VTDigger about the Monday deal.
In a statement Monday, Gov. Phil Scott heralded the agreement but said that the state should continue to strive for fiscal responsibility no matter where federal funding levels fall.
“It’s good to see that Congress and the White House were able to find compromise to avoid a government shutdown,” Scott said. “There is still a long way to go in the negotiations on the federal budget, so while some uncertainty on federal funding remains, it is critical to ensure we pass a balanced budget here at home that does not increase taxes and fees, takes advantage of savings opportunities, and prioritizes investments to grow the economy.”
Correction: The Amtrak Vermonter train travels between St. Albans and Washington, D.C.