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How did Mitt Romney, Mike Lee vote on $1.7T government spending bill?

SHARE How did Mitt Romney, Mike Lee vote on $1.7T government spending bill?
The Senate side of the Capitol is seen in Washington on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022.

The Senate side of the Capitol is seen in Washington on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022, as lawmakers rush to complete passage of a bill to fund the government before a midnight Friday deadline.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

The Senate passed a $1.7 trillion spending package Thursday to avoid a government shutdown after overcoming an impasse over immigration policy led by Sen. Mike Lee the day before.

After considering a series of amendments, the Senate passed the bill 68-29, with Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, voting in favor and Lee voting against, despite securing continued pay for a Navy officer imprisoned in Japan. The legislation that would fund the government through September 2023 now goes to the House, where it is expected to pass late Thursday or early Friday.

Lee, a Republican, has objected to not only the massive spending outlined in the deal but how the more than 4,155-page bill came together just before the Christmas recess. He said in a tweet Thursday before the bill passed that the White House teamed up with Democrats to “deliver a lie to the American people.”

“This bill was written by four or five members of Congress,” he said after the vote, adding the bill was unveiled only Tuesday. “It’s literally true to say not a single member who supported this really understood what was in it because it was a bunch of stuff thrown in together.”

Lee also said he’s especially disappointed that Republicans went along with the bill as well as the process used to pass it.

“Republicans who were asked to do this should never ever do it again. We will self-destruct as a party if this ever happens again,” he told Fox Business.

While acknowledging the bill contains an “enormous” amount of money, Romney said it pays for the military, veteran and social safety net programs as well as the work of the entire federal government.

“I wish the number were smaller, but I am convinced that if we were to reject this budget and kick the can down the road until next year, we would end up having to spend even more,” he said.

Romney said House Republicans, who will hold a majority in the next Congress, have yet to select a speaker, and he’s not sure they will be able to take on this year’s budget and next year’s budget at the same time.

“So in total, my opinion is this bill is better than what we get if we vote against it,” he said. “It’ll be less expensive, I believe, and it does a lot more that I agree with than what I disagree with.”

The legislation includes $44.9 billion in emergency assistance to Ukraine and NATO allies, exceeding President Joe Biden’s request. It increases defense spending by about 10% to $858 billion, addressing some lawmakers’ concerns that more investment in the U.S. military is needed to ensure national security. The legislation includes $772.5 billion for non-defense discretionary programs.

“Most of what’s in here has been put together in a bipartisan fashion, funding things we all say we agree with,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the lead negotiator on the deal.

An effort to force a vote to maintain Title 42, a pandemic-era border policy, stalled the bill on Wednesday after Lee demanded a vote on an amendment to tie up Department of Homeland Security funds to continue the policy that a majority of Democrats oppose, according to The New York Times.

Lee did get a vote on the amendment Thursday, but it failed 50-47. The policy, he said, is the only sustained control the government has over illegal immigration, noting 2.7 million undocumented immigrants have arrived at the border with Mexico this year. Title 42 allows the government to expel migrants who cross the southwestern border. 

“We have no business passing this bill unless this is in here,” the Utah Republican said on the Senate floor.

Lee believed that for “eight glorious minutes” his amendment had the votes to pass until “all of a sudden” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., pulled Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., off the floor. Both had voted for the amendment along with all Senate Republicans.

“He twisted their arms. Who knows what he told them, what he promised them, what he threatened them with. They came back and changed their votes,” Lee told Fox Business, noting Schumer allowed the vote to last eight minutes longer than the agreed upon 10 minutes per amendment.

Had Lee’s amendment passed, it likely would have doomed the spending bill in the House. “It might have given us the last best hope for taking down this monstrosity,” Lee said on Fox Business.

Sinema’s own amendment to maintain Title 42 also failed.

The Biden administration intended to end Title 42 this week but the Supreme Court put a temporary hold on a lower court ruling that would have ended the policy. The stay came after 19 states petitioned the court through an emergency appeal to keep the policy in place.

While the spending bill sets aside hundreds of millions of dollars to secure borders in North Africa and the Middle East, it does nothing to strengthen the U.S. border with Mexico, Lee said.

Lee, however, did successfully amend the legislation to extend the soon-to-expire pay and benefits for Navy Lt. Ridge Alkonis who is serving a three-year prison term in Japan.

Alkonis, a married father of three, was convicted of negligent driving in the deaths of an 85-year-old Japanese woman and her 54-year-old son-in-law in May 2021. A Japanese judge determined Alkonis fell asleep at the wheel, while U.S. Navy investigators found that he suffered from acute mountain sickness and lost consciousness.

“I believe under these circumstances we must stand behind him and his family,” Lee said.

Military members who are absent without leave or over leave forfeit their pay for the period of the absence unless it is excused as unavoidable.

The Department of Defense denied Alkonis’ application to extend his pay while he is in prison, saying it doesn’t have the authority under a policy that mandates absences may not be excused as unavoidable if a service member is confined by civil authorities after having been tried and convicted of a crime.

Lee said Alkonis’ absence was not unavoidable. He said he disagreed with the Defense Department but his amendment “will fix that.”

“As Lt. Alkonis sits in a Japanese prison on the eve of Christmas, we cannot leave his family wondering how they will feed themselves or keep a roof over their heads,” Lee said in a tweet.

AP22153636909556__1_.jpg

Derek and Suzi Alkonis pose with a photo of their son Lt. Ridge Alkonis on Wednesday, June 1, 2022, in Dana Point, Calif. Their son, a U.S. Navy lieutenant in Japan, was convicted of negligent driving in a deadly car crash and is serving a three-year prison sentence.

Denis Poroy, Associated Press

Like Lee, Romney said the process for government funding must change and allow for individual appropriations bills to be voted on in regular order, instead of being combined into large catch-all bills, “which force us to vote for the bad to get the good.”

Lee said the “groupthink” that goes into a 4,000-page, last-minute omnibus bill disenfranchises millions of voters whose representatives are cut out of having a say on what the government spends.

“As with any government funding bill, it contains spending and programs I don’t like,” Romney said.

Among the things he does like is the Electoral Count Reform Act, which raises the threshold for objections to Electoral College votes from one member in each chamber to one-fifth of members in both chambers.

“I don’t want Kamala Harris choosing the next president,” Romney said.

Romney said the package also contains issues important to Utah, including the Bonneville Shoreline Trail Advancement Act, support for hospitals throughout the state, money for water projects and funding for essential services like roads and law enforcement in Utah’s rural counties.

Utah’s military programs at Hill Air Force Base and Dugway Proving Ground will also receive the funding to carry out their vital missions in support of the country’s national defense, he said.