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With Talks in Flux, Shutdown Showdown Gets Closer

Fate of ‘cromnibus’ hangs in the balance

Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., center, is trying to figure out the winning combo to fund the government and pass other priorities. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., center, is trying to figure out the winning combo to fund the government and pass other priorities. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Republicans’ plan to pass a full-year Defense appropriations bill with a continuing resolution for remaining agencies through Jan. 19 was supposed to be an easy lift, a measure designed to show the Senate their unified support for increased national security funding.

But as the House prepares to vote on the spending bill Wednesday, just two days before the Dec. 22 government funding deadline, GOP division over the $81 billion disaster supplemental that leadership hoped to attach to the so-called cromnibus has effectively weakened the House’s negotiating leverage.

Leadership announced their plan to attach the supplemental to the spending bill during the weekly House Republican Conference meeting Tuesday, prompting members to grouse that the supplemental was not offset with cuts elsewhere.

By the end of the day, GOP leaders were conducting a whip check to see if there was enough support for their plan. Chief Deputy Whip Patrick T. McHenry said the bills may need to move separately.

“There’s no ideological commitment to the structure of these three pieces we have to move,” the North Carolina Republican said of the cromnibus, disaster supplemental and reauthorization of government surveillance powers under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

‘Very fluid’

In the face of GOP opposition, leadership had already decided to move the FISA piece separately from the cromnibus (so named because it mashes up a CR with an omnibus). Now it appears they may need to have three separate votes — or they may decide to combine the disaster supplemental with the FISA bill.

“The question of how to get this package over to the Senate [is] very open, very fluid,” McHenry said.

With Democrats planning to oppose the cromnibus, Republicans have little room for error. The measure also includes funds for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, and the Veterans Choice program, both of which are running short of cash.

Leadership decided to attach the disaster supplemental to the cromnibus after lawmakers from hurricane-ravaged areas in Texas and Florida and wildfire-decimated areas of California threatened to withhold their votes for the spending bill if the House didn’t also pass the disaster aid.

“Those members are very happy with how this supplemental has come together,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise said.

But the inclusion of the disaster aid might have pushed away conservatives. Scalise said early Tuesday the whip team was talking to those members.

One of those who spoke with Scalise was Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows. He said after their morning conversation that Freedom Caucus members were open to backing the supplemental as an attachment to the cromnibus if there were changes made to the FISA measure to ensure there wasn’t unwarranted spying on Americans.

FISA deal with Democrats?

But by the end of the day, that proposal appeared to be off the table.

“I think there’s a deal worked out with the Democrats is what I understand, a bipartisan deal on FISA reauthorization is what I’m hearing,” Meadows said.

Meadows said most Freedom Caucus members want separate votes on FISA and the supplemental and he would be surprised if leadership has the votes to attach the disaster aid to the cromnibus.

“I’m struggling with it,” Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker said of the idea of a combined measure. The $81 billion supplemental would bring the total spent on disaster relief this year to $138 billion, or “about 20 percent of the entire Obama stimulus package,” the North Carolina Republican said.

“There are several guys that have already mentioned that they’re struggling with that level of non-offset billions of dollars,” Walker said, noting he was aware of many members who were undecided or leaning “no” on the cromnibus because of it.

Rep. Paul Gosar said a lot of members are concerned about the additional spending, “particularly when you see the number that was requested by the Trump administration.” The Arizona Republican was referring to the administration’s $44 billion request, which the House measure nearly doubles.

Just one hurdle

Whether it moves separately from the disaster supplemental or not, GOP leaders are planning to pass the cromnibus Wednesday, knowing it’s just one of many hurdles they’ll have to clear in the next few days to avoid a government shutdown.

The Senate is not planning to accept the House measure and is expected to volley it back with changes. Exactly what those changes will be remains to be decided, but the Defense appropriations bill is likely to be stripped and the continuing resolution portion altered to include defense funding. Such a change is needed to prevent a Democratic filibuster of the bill, as is removal of GOP offsets to the CHIP funding.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a floor speech Monday outlining year-end priorities, said passing bipartisan plans to stabilize the health insurance markets were “of particular importance.”

The Kentucky Republican was referring to legislation from Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander and ranking member Patty Murray to fund the cost-sharing reduction subsidies, or CSRs, for two years and a measure from Maine Republican Susan Collins and Florida Democrat Bill Nelson to provide $10 billion over two years for states to establish high-risk pools or reinsurance programs. To secure Collins’ vote on the tax overhaul, McConnell has promised to pass both measures.

Pushback on CSRs

House Republicans on Tuesday pushed back on the idea of adding the CSRs — payments to insurers designed to help reduce out-of-pocket costs such as deductibles and copays for lower-income individuals — to the spending bill, especially without provisions preventing taxpayer money from being used to subsidize plans that allow abortions.

“It’s very clear that as structured the CSR payments are things that aren’t going to fly in our conference,” Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole said. While leadership didn’t make any specific commitment on that, Cole said he believes Speaker Paul D. Ryan will listen to his members.

GOP leaders have not signaled what their next move will be once the Senate sends them back its own cromnibus, but they have asked the conference for tactical flexibility.

Members so far have obliged, but many say they are prepared to stand their ground against the Senate.

“We’re in the mood for a big fight,” Alabama Rep. Bradley Byrne said. “I think we’re all sick and tired of being jammed by the Senate, and this defense issue is a huge issue. It is a make-or-break issue.”

Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.

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