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U.S. Senate $1.66 trillion spending bill advances after immigration standoff

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WASHINGTON — 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 debated.

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.

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The legislation provides Ukraine with $44.9 billion in wartime aid and bans the use of Chinese-owned social media app TikTok on federal government devices.

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Progress on the bill 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.

Both amendments failed, which in practice allowed lawmakers to move forward with the overall package.

“We have an agreement now,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor before the amendments were voted upon. “It’s taken a while, but it’s worth it.”

If the Senate passes the bill, as expected, it will then go to the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives for a vote and onto Democratic President Joe Biden for signature into law.

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Lee’s amendment would have required the United States to maintain a policy known as Title 42, 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.

As of the early afternoon, senators were still voting on a package of 15 amendments, two procedural maneuvers and a stand-alone disaster aid bill.

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Many of these measures have failed or 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 the remaining amendments before getting to a vote on Senate approval so that the legislation can be quickly sent to the House for final passage.

Lawmakers were eager to go to their home states for the Christmas and New Year holidays.

At her final weekly press conference as House speaker, Nancy Pelosi said she hoped that the massive spending bill is passed by the House on Thursday night. But she added that once the Senate approves the bill, it likely will be several hours before paperwork is completed and the legislation can be transmitted to the lower chamber.

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While the spending bill is expected to pass in the Democratic-led House as well, most Republicans there 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 legislation 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.

(Reporting by Gram Slattery, Susan Heavey and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Ted Hesson; Editing by Scott Malone, Jonathan Oatis and Lisa Shumaker)

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