From marijuana to Islamic State: five things addressed in new budget deal

The House and Senate reached an agreement on a $1.1 trillion budget on Tuesday. Members of both parties are bound to have strong objections to portions of the deal, but much negotiation and compromise went into the agreement.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File
The Treasury Building in Washington on Aug. 8, 2011.

Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate reached an agreement on a $1.1 trillion budget on Tuesday. If passed by both houses, it will avoid a government shutdown, sparing Americans the political drama and economic hardship of a rerun from last year.

The deal is a product of intense negotiation and compromise. For instance, it does not include spending restrictions on President Obama’s immigration executive action as sought by hard-line conservatives in the House.

But it provides only short-term funding to the Department of Homeland Security, which will carry out the executive action to protect about 4 million unauthorized immigrants from deportation. That short leash gives Republicans leverage to try to roll back the action when the department’s funding would run out on Feb. 27.

All other functions of the federal government are funded through the end of September, mostly at a flat level and according to budget caps reached under a bipartisan agreement last year. However, emergency spending on overseas crises such as Ebola is outside the caps.

Members of both parties, in both the House and Senate, are bound to have strong objections to portions of the deal. Tea party Republicans aren’t happy about how immigration has been handled. Democrats don’t like certain aspects, such as a reduction in pensions.

But a deal of this sort can carry tremendous momentum in a lame-duck session when a deadline looms, the holidays are approaching, and a newly elected Congress is poised to take over.

“While not everyone got everything they wanted, such compromises must be made in a divided government,” said House Appropriations Committee chairman Harold Rogers (R) of Kentucky and Senate Appropriations chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland in a joint statement Tuesday. “These are the tough choices that we must make to govern responsibly and do what the American people sent us here to do.”

Here are the top five things you need to know about the far-ranging deal, which includes several riders that affect policy.

Spending cuts and increases. Republicans cut the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency by $60 million and took a much larger whack at the Internal Revenue Service – $345.6 million.

Democrats got some increases in two financial agencies they care about: $150 million more for the Securities and Exchange Commission – which oversees Wall Street – and an extra $35 million for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

In more targeted areas, Republicans allowed no funds for high-speed rail, the president’s “Race to the Top” education program, or the International Monetary Fund. No new funding is provided for the Affordable Care Act.

But Democrats saw an increase in monies for Pell Grants, for a national database to stop the mentally ill from buying guns, for hiring more immigration judges, and for dredging harbors.

Ebola, the Islamic State, Ukraine. New emergency funding – in the billions of dollars – is provided to deal with emerging overseas threats. House and Senate negotiators agreed to spend $5 billion to fight the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and $5.4 billion to control the Ebola crisis. In both cases, this is less than what the White House wanted.

Other funds will go to help Ukraine and Baltic states face a more aggressive Russia, and to assist with refugees and natural disaster relief.

Total emergency funding for all such operations is $85.6 billion, according to a summary provided by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Regulation rollbacks. Republicans aggressively pursued restrictions on regulations, especially in the environmental and financial sectors.

As part of the deal, they succeeded in preventing Clean Water Act regulations from affecting certain agricultural areas, from ponds to irrigation ditches; in stopping new rules to place the sage grouse on the endangered species list, because it would prevent oil drilling projects; in undoing White House language that would have blocked funding for overseas coal plants by the Export-Import Bank and Overseas Private Investment Corp. – so that US exporters can take advantage of the coal projects.

The spending agreement also weakens the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, which regulates risky financial investments. It repeals the part of the law that requires banks to push out their operations on “swaps” from the part of the institution that is federally insured, according to CQ Roll Call.

In addition, an agreement on reduced pensions in distressed “multiemployer” plans has some Democrats alarmed.

However, Democrats succeeded in blocking a GOP attempt to roll back the EPA’s regulations on greenhouse gas emissions (but another try will be made when the GOP controls both chambers next year). And Democrats were able to stop a one-year waiver on nutrition standards for school lunches that House Republicans wanted: A compromise allows flexibility on sodium levels and whole grains in the program championed by first lady Michelle Obama.

Involvement in marijuana issues.  Last month, voters in Washington, D.C., approved a ballot initiative that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Republicans didn’t repeal the measure in the budget deal, but they do prohibit federal and local funds from being used to tax and regulate such recreational use.

On Tuesday, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada said he didn’t like the move, but it won’t stand in the way of his approving the deal.

On the other hand, another aspect of the budget agreement bars the Justice Department from interfering with state legalization of medical marijuana.

Fewer campaign finance restrictions. A deal on campaign finance greatly expands donations allowed to the political parties for presidential nominating conventions, party headquarter buildings, and costs related to election recounts and other legal expenses.

For instance, instead of being able to contribute $32,400 to various party accounts and committees each year, an individual will be able to contribute 10 times that much – $324,000, according to the campaign finance watchdog group Democracy 21.

"It is only millionaires and billionaires who can give these huge, corrupting contributions," said campaign finance activist Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, in a statement.

Still, incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky wanted language that would have left the use of these party funds unrestricted. He lost that particular effort.

Because negotiations took a bit longer than expected, it’s not clear that this mega-deal will pass both houses and be signed by the president before midnight on Thursday, when funding for the government runs out. To be on the safe side, both chambers are readying to pass a short-term extension of funds that would last a few days.

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