U.S. Senate moves $1.66 trillion spending bill toward passage © Reuters. FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Capitol is seen as Congress continues work on passing a $1.66 trillion government funding bill in Washington, U.S., December 21, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Gram Slattery and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A $1.66 trillion U.S. government spending bill, delayed by weeks of policy disagreements over immigration and overall levels of funding, was inching toward passage in the Senate on Thursday following a deal on amendments that would be allowed.

The breakthrough came as Congress worked to meet a midnight Friday deadline for the bill that would fund government programs through Sept. 30, 2023. Existing money expires at the end of the week.

Progress on the bill — which includes $44.9 billion in wartime aid for Ukraine and bans the use of Chinese-owned social media app TikTok on federal government devices — had halted after conservative Republican Senator Mike Lee introduced an amendment meant to slow immigration on Wednesday night.

That move prompted Democrats to put forward a competing amendment that would boost funding for various law enforcement agencies that operate on the border.

“We have an agreement now,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor. “We will vote on all of the amendments in order and then vote on final passage. It’s taken a while, but it’s worth it.”

If the Senate passes the bill, it would then go to the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and on to Democratic President Joe Biden for signature into law.

Lee’s amendment would require the United States to maintain a policy known as Title 42, a policy implemented under Republican former President Donald Trump at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented hundreds of thousands of immigrants from seeking asylum. It grants border officials the ability to rapidly expel migrants to Mexico without a chance to seek asylum during public health emergencies.

The policy was set to expire earlier in the week, but the Supreme Court put the brakes on Title 42’s end, as it considers litigation brought by Republican-led states.

“The omnibus contains nothing to secure the border, and in fact contains language undermining border security,” Lee wrote on Twitter, referring to the spending bill. “Without an up-or-down vote on Title 42, every Senate Republican should oppose.”

In reality, the legislation does contain annual funding for U.S. border security operations, but less than many Republicans want.

The Senate logjam was broken when senators unanimously agreed to allow votes on a package of 15 amendments, two procedural maneuvers and a stand-alone disaster aid bill.

Many of these measures are expected to fail.

At least three of the amendments are related to U.S. immigration policy. Another amendment would allow for the transfer of proceeds from the sale of certain forfeited property to be used to aid Ukraine.

It is expected to take a few hours to wade through these amendments before getting to a vote on Senate approval so that the legislation can be quickly sent to the House for final passage.

While the spending bill is expected to pass in the Democratic-led House as well, most Republicans in that chamber have come out against it, criticizing the package for increasing spending without addressing priorities such as securing the U.S.-Mexico border.

House Republicans wanted to delay negotiations on the full-year vote until early next year, after they take the majority.

Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican who is seeking to be the next speaker, endorsed a letter on Tuesday from dozens of conservatives who pledged to actively oppose the legislative priorities of Senate Republicans in the next Congress who vote for the spending package.

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