Speaker Kevin McCarthy won’t necessarily need to reach a grand accord with his conservatives to win enough votes to pass one or two of the funding bills that he wants on the floor next week. | Francis Chung/POLITICO
Both parties have long anticipated a September showdown over keeping the government funded. This week, House Republicans will take their first shot in the fiscal battle.
House GOP leaders are hustling to build enough support to pass two of their easier annual spending bills among the broader group of a dozen proposals — most of them dogged by unpopular spending cuts, billions of dollars in rescinded cash and controversial attempts to make policy using the federal purse.
If Republicans can pass either of those two bills before leaving Washington for their August recess, they would score the first wins of the season on spending. Such a moment would echo their springtime passage of a conservative-leaning debt limit bill that helped force President Joe Biden to the negotiating table.
But passage is far from certain for Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who will need the full support of deeply fractured members as he continues to snub bipartisan funding negotiations.
Looming just a few months away, on Sept. 30, is a potential government shutdown.
Across the Capitol, senators are waiting to see how the House drama plays out — with their bipartisan funding talks running behind McCarthy’s go-it-alone strategy.
“Hopefully we can avoid a government shutdown and all the craziness that those crazy bastards are going to do over there,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who oversees defense funding in the upper chamber, said of House Republicans.
“If you want to shut down, we will shut down. If they want to get the bills done, we’ll get the bills done,” he said.
McCarthy’s biggest hurdle in the funding debate is a bloc of House Freedom Caucus members who want even deeper reductions to the spending bills after already forcing the California Republican to slash far below the levels he agreed to with Biden last month. Those conservatives’ goal: hack funding to levels last seen two years ago, without counting the clawback of money already signed into law.
However, the speaker won’t necessarily need to reach a grand accord with his conservatives to win enough votes to pass one or two of the funding bills that he wants on the floor next week. As long as any spending measure that comes to the floor is close to the right flank’s desired budget levels, shrinking the rest of the dozen bills can be negotiated later, said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas).
“At some point, we can figure those out a little bit on the fly,” added Roy, a prominent Freedom Caucus member. “We’re trying to work in good faith, again focused on the pre-Covid-level spending.”
Despite Roy’s confidence, swing district Republicans won’t find it politically easy to back the lower budget levels he and 20 other House Republicans demanded in a letter to McCarthy this month as a condition of their support for any spending bill the speaker tries to pass. Lower totals would put GOP lawmakers on record supporting cuts to federal efforts like help for veterans and farmers, handing their Democratic opponents fodder for the campaign trail.
“It is going to be very problematic for many of them to have this record of supporting the far-right extremist agenda,” Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) told reporters last week as Democratic leaders accused House Republicans of taking the “shutdown path.”
Even the GOP’s two less-divisive funding bills coming to the floor this week have proven difficult for many House Republicans to swallow. Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.), for example, said he’s opposed to the fiscal 2024 funding bill for the Department of Agriculture and FDA because it would nix mail-order access to medication abortion and cut federal nutrition programs.
Teeing up partisan spending bills this summer will also challenge nearly every House Republican to vote for controversial social policies like denying abortion access to veterans, stripping funding from organizations that serve LGBTQ people and barring young immigrants who were brought to the United States as children from filling federal government jobs.
More than 80 amendments have already rolled in for one of the two bills set for floor action this week: a plan to fund veterans programs and military construction projects. Another 150 amendments have been submitted for the agriculture funding measure.
Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) wants to amend the agriculture spending measure to include even harsher SNAP restrictions than what Congress included in the debt ceiling deal — an effort that could alienate more moderate Republicans and potentially jeopardize the entire bill if his proposal is approved for floor action.
Republicans’ agriculture funding bill, like most of their other spending measures, also seeks to rescind billions of dollars in recently enacted spending. Conservatives have deemed that strategy a “gimmick” that doesn’t make up for what they really want — steep cuts that return government funding to pre-pandemic levels.
In stark contrast to the House GOP’s tack, the Senate’s spending debate is looking as bipartisan and cooperative as it has been in years.
Senators are advancing largely bipartisan bills filled with tens of billions of additional emergency dollars that House conservatives have scorned. Squaring those two spending visions in the near-term could prove impossible before federal cash evaporates on Sept. 30.
To avoid a shutdown, House and Senate leaders will have to band together to extend current funding levels to a later date, while wrestling with additional needs like a rapidly dwindling pot of federal disaster aid and the polarizing issue of more aid to Ukraine.
But even that stopgap effort is certain to test both chambers. Plus, if lawmakers rely on a spending patch into next year, they risk the possibility of a 1 percent across-the-board spending cut to federal budgets.
Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), the top Republican who oversees military construction funding, said he’s expecting Congress to have to pass even more than one funding patch.
“The reality is, we’re running out of time,” he said.
When lawmakers return to session in September, the House’s top Democratic appropriator predicted “chaos” in the race to fund the government before Oct. 1.
“At worst, the trajectory is to shut the government down,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said. “And there are some who think that’s OK.”
DeLauro added that House GOP leaders are bending “to a small group of people who don’t vote for” spending bills anyway.
She acknowledged that Republicans’ military construction funding bill, which doesn’t include any rescissions, might have an easier time winning support from the GOP conference. But even that measure has been bogged down by abortion-related controversies.
House Republicans have sent 10 out of their 12 agency funding bills to the floor. They’re still struggling to secure full committee approval for the largest domestic spending bill that funds labor, health and education agencies, in addition to the measure that funds the Justice Department.
Failure to advance the last two fiscal 2024 bills could further rankle House conservatives, some of whom are adamant that no spending legislation should get a vote until all 12 bills have been approved by the full Appropriations Committee.
The Senate, meanwhile, is expected to ready all of its spending bills for the floor by the end of the month.
Jordain Carney and Alice Miranda Ollstein contributed to this report.