Sat. May 18th, 2024
House leaders stare down another nail biter week as spending bills sow divisions


Republican leadership is bracing for yet another week where they’ll need to unite a splintered conference – this time on a series of spending bills that will set the tone for an autumn showdown with the United States Senate.

The House overcame its first hurdle Wednesday when it passed a procedural vote to fund military construction and veterans’ affairs programs, but the fight over spending is still very much in play.

For one, the House will have to unite later this week around a bill to fund the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and other related agencies that has caused a headache for leadership, and a new deal cut with hardliners on the far right has prompted outrage from appropriators who spent months carefully crafting their bills and passing them through committee.

A member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, GOP Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina, told reporters Wednesday that after weeks of negotiations, the hardliners had reached a deal with leadership on a topline spending number of $1.47 trillion without any rescissions, which Republicans had argued were being used to artificially lower the cost of the bills without making real cuts. The agreement, however, will force spending bills to include deeper cuts than they already do.

GOP Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, who chairs an Appropriations subcommittee, sounded off on the deal.

Simpson told reporters he wasn’t aware of the agreement, and also said the idea of replacing so-called “rescissions” with other cuts – at least in his specific bill – was unrealistic.

“Then just drop it on the floor and stomp on it,” Simpson quipped. “What else do you do with it? You can’t make logical cuts in there.”

Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas, another GOP appropriator, told CNN that driving the numbers down even further when they aren’t likely to pass in the Senate is only endangering members running for reelection in swing districts.

“What we are doing politically is we are putting a lot of real good members in very tough … districts, we are having them walk the plank,” he said.

It’s a familiar dynamic within a Republican conference that has a slim majority. Members of the right flank warned for weeks they needed to see more concessions while moderates have bristled at some of the cuts and policy riders they’ve had to vote on.

The agriculture bill, which is on tap for a vote later this week, is front and center in the fight.

Members from the conservative House Freedom Caucus have balked at the spending level in the agriculture bill, arguing it’s too high even as one of their own members – Republican Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland – shepherded the bill through committee. Leaders are looking at ways to use amendments in the House Rules Committee or on the floor to further slash spending, but it’s a delicate balance to ensure they don’t lose more moderate members in the process.

Leaders can only afford to lose four votes assuming full attendance.

“We have a lot of very intense conservative friends who’d like to see dramatic cuts, but you have to be practical,” Rep. Frank Lucas, a Republican from Oklahoma, said. “We’ll see how practical we are this week.”

Meanwhile, some moderate Republicans have signaled they are opposed to a provision in the agriculture and Food and Drug Administration spending bill targeting access to the abortion pill.

The pressure is mounting as the House is expected to wrap up its work and leave town for a month-long recess at the end of the week, giving leadership a narrow window to find a path forward. And even if House Republicans are able to reach a resolution on their own spending bills – a heavy lift on its own – they’re dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate, teeing up a massive fiscal showdown later this year that will again put McCarthy’s leadership to the test, forcing him to either cut another deal with Democrats that could infuriate his right flank or else see a government shutdown on his watch.

Veteran appropriator Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican congressman, when asked if the appropriations bills would pass this week was blunt: “I don’t know yet, but we’ll work them one at a time.”

“If we get milcon VA across,” the Oklahoma Republican congressman said, referring to the military construction and veterans affairs funding, “then our chances on ag go up.”

In a private meeting Wednesday morning, McCarthy implored his members to stick together, warning it’s critical the conference stay united on spending bills, to ensure they have maximum leverage in the fall when they’ll have to negotiate with the US Senate, which is moving its bills through committee at far higher spending levels than the House. The Senate, McCarthy argued, is the enemy – not fellow House Republicans.

It’s yet another week in which GOP leaders are confronting the realities of their slim majority. Majority Leader Steve Scalise, a Republican from Louisiana, said Wednesday morning that he was continuing to meet throughout the day with the House Freedom Caucus to find a way forward on the agriculture bill. But even if the House can pass two of the bills on the floor this week, it leaves them 10 more to go when they return in September from the recess and just a handful of legislative days to complete the work before the September 30 deadline. Two of their bills also have yet to make it out of the Appropriations Committee. Consideration of those measures, some of the most contentious, was postponed this week amid still lingering divisions.

Republicans acknowledge they’ll likely need to pass a short-term stopgap measure to give them more time to finish the work of funding the government this fall.

And some hardline members are signaling that they’d be comfortable with the prospect of a government shutdown if it achieves their goal of slashing spending and driving down the national debt – though they insist that a shutdown is not the goal.

“We should not fear a government shutdown,” GOP Rep. Bob Good of Virginia said at a news conference this week. “Most of what we do up here is bad anyway.”

Rep. Kevin Hern, an Oklahoma Republican and the leader of the Republican Study Committee, told CNN that he would back a so-called continuing resolution if one was needed for a few months and predicted “most members would.” But, a short-term bill is only a temporary option. The bill to raise the debt ceiling that passed in June included a provision that would institute an automatic 1% cut on all federal spending under a continuing resolution beginning on January 1 that would go into effect in April of 2024.

Those cuts could be motivating for Senate and House appropriators to come to the negotiating table, but there is still considerable work to be done. Despite the fact that the debt ceiling bill included topline spending targets for the appropriations process, the House has largely marked their bills up at far lower levels than that deal. The latest numbers agreed to with the House Freedom Caucus would widen that gap even further. Meanwhile last week, the Senate negotiators agreed to include an emergency spending package for defense and nondefense spending that would set total spending above the caps deal. The two sides are tens of billions of dollars apart.

One of the promises McCarthy has made to his right flank that could further complicate governing: he vowed to not support a massive, end of year spending bill, known as an omnibus, which is how Congress has tended to fund the government in recent years, given the steep challenges in passing bills individually.

But McCarthy did not rule out the idea of packaging a few spending bills together in order to get them over the finish line.

“There will be times when I have to put more than one bill together,” he said. “But I like it more, as much individually as we can in the process.”

This story has been updated with additional developments.

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