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Republicans Likely in for a Messy December Funding, Leadership Fight

Securing border wall funding key for GOP, members to watch leadership candidates’ tactics

House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., shown talking to Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., during a press conference September 13, thinks Republicans are in a good position to secure wins in a December funding fight. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., shown talking to Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., during a press conference September 13, thinks Republicans are in a good position to secure wins in a December funding fight. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Republican leaders patted themselves on the back last week for appropriating a large portion of discretionary spending before the start of the fiscal year today, but they’ve also set themselves up for messy spending fight come December over border wall funding that could complicate GOP leadership elections and potentially lead to a partial government shutdown.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan promised President Donald Trump that if he let Congress punt the Homeland Security Appropriations bill — where border wall funding would be debated — until after the November midterm elections, then House Republicans would fight for the wall then.

Conservatives are eager to deliver on one of the president’s top campaign promises. Although some wanted to have that fight before the election, even more House Republicans are ready to have it after the midterms.

And they might be willing to shutter a few government agencies to get their way.

“I think there may be a willingness now that there wouldn’t be before,” Alabama Rep. Bradley Byrne said.

That’s because Republicans’ top spending priority, the Department of Defense, has been fully funded for fiscal 2019. Congress passed that bill in a package with the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations bill that tops Democrats’ list of priorities and a continuing resolution through Dec. 7 for agencies they couldn’t reach agreement on funding for yet.

In total Congress passed — and President Donald Trump signed into law — five of the 12 annual appropriations bills before the Sept. 30 deadline. Defense and Labor HHS account for sizable chunks of discretionary spending.

Remaining leverage?

House and Senate appropriators are making good progress in conference negotiations over four more of the bills and hope to have a conference report ready to pass quickly after the midterms.

That would leave them just three bills to negotiate: Homeland Security, State and Foreign Operations and Commerce, Justice, Science and related agencies. These are the agencies most in danger of being shuttered in December if Congress can’t reach a deal.

The three bills are not important enough to most members to be used as bargaining chips to leverage other policy priorities. That’s why some Republicans feel that by passing the Labor-HHS bill, they threw away the only leverage they had to get Democrats to negotiate on wall funding.

Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows of North Carolina has gone as far as to predict that the Homeland Security Department will ultimately be funded on a continuing resolution through the remainder of the fiscal year and that Congress won’t be able to secure any more border wall funding for Trump beyond the $1.6 billion authorized last fiscal year, which was technically for fencing.

Other conservatives were also upset that Republican leaders agreed to pass the Labor-HHS bill along with Defense, especially since provisions House Republicans fought for in the Labor-HHS measure didn’t end up in the conference report.

Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker called it “preposterous,” saying his members vented about it before the vote. They were particularly frustrated by the exclusion of a conscience protection provision that would allow health care providers that receive federal funds to abstain from performing abortions. 

“How in the world did we get to the place where we have the majorities in both houses and yet we continue to get it handed to us?” the North Carolina Republican said. “That’s a frustrating place to be.”

A majority of Republicans still voted for the package because they wanted to fund Defense on time and on budget.

Walker said he doesn’t know how House Republicans will avoid another loss on the border wall come December.

“This is really in leadership’s hands as far as do we draw a line here,” he said.

Deadline around leadership elections

With the next funding deadline of Dec. 7 coming due around the time that the Republican Conference will be holding its leadership elections, it’s not just the current leadership team that will be in the hot seat. (House Republicans have yet to set a date for their leadership elections, but it’s typically done the week before or after Thanksgiving, when incoming freshmen are in town for orientation.)

Anyone who wants to run for leadership, especially the candidates seeking to replace Speaker Paul D. Ryan in the top spot, will be judged on their strategy for delivering on a key Republican priority.

“I think we’re in a very strong position,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said.

The California Republican, the candidate Ryan has endorsed to succeed him, said he thinks a Republican majority will have more leverage in December because “you’ve got 75 percent of all the funding approved.”

Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan, the only member who has announced plans to challenge McCarthy for speaker or minority leader, is of the mind that Defense should’ve been passed on its own and that giving Democrats the Labor-HHS bill was not a good tactical move.

McCarthy and Jordan will likely have different approaches come December, and members will be watching to see who has the best plan to deliver on the wall.

“This is what a lot of the American people wanted, that’s what they voted for, that’s what they’re demanding,” Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry, a Freedom Caucus member, said. “It’s not the president. It’s us. So when’s it going to happen? And depending on how the election goes, it might be even more telling.”

Different fight

Regardless, Republicans will be playing on a different game board than they were in fiscal 2018, trying to negotiate a massive omnibus bill.

At that time Democrats weren’t keen to give Republicans any wall funding and demanded any spending package include legal protections for young undocumented immigrants called Dreamers — who faced prospects of deportation with Trump wanting to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that they’ve used to obtain legal status.

Republicans argued that Democrats were holding Defense funding hostage to their immigration demands and did not relent. Ultimately there were two brief government shutdowns before Congress passed the fiscal 2018 omnibus.

Some Republicans see the December funding fight playing out differently.

“They can’t be leveraging the military,” McCarthy said.

The primary debate will come down to one issue, immigration, which in the Homeland Security bill includes provisions that extend beyond the border wall but generally deal with border security and enforcement.

“There’s a very stark choice to make,” Republican Conference Vice Chairman Doug Collins of Georgia said. “You’re either wanting to help secure our borders or you’re not wanting to help secure our borders. … So I think it actually in some ways actually improves our possibilities of finding a deal and getting the president a win.”

Several members acknowledged that the election results — whether Republicans retain their majorities or not — will obviously have some bearing on how hard they can push the issue.

“Some of the polling I’ve seen is the border wall polls well in certain Democratic districts too,” Byrne said.

If that proves true and Republicans hold on to their majority partially because of that issue, they’d certainly have more sway.

“Worst-case scenario: The Democrats take over, they win November, but we still have to fund the government for that period,” Collins said. “It’s still something for us to say, OK, now before we finish this out, before you get a CR, before you get anything else, let’s deal with this issue.”

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