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Thin House majorities, current and future, color spending talks

Funding deadline is next Friday, after which the federal government could partially shut down

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., right, is among those progressives concerned about the level of defense spending party leaders have agreed to.
Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., right, is among those progressives concerned about the level of defense spending party leaders have agreed to. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Democrats’ current two-seat majority — and Republicans’ narrow edge they will claim in January — is casting a shadow over fiscal 2023 omnibus negotiations as next Friday’s deadline to reach an agreement nears. 

Negotiations have slowed as Republicans and Democrats remain billions of dollars apart on the level of nondefense spending, even as current stopgap appropriations lapse Dec. 16. The dispute is likely to bleed over into the week of Christmas, if not beyond, but right now the basic question of simply keeping the government’s lights on is unanswered.

If there’s nothing that would extend the Dec. 16 date on President Joe Biden’s desk by 12 a.m. next Saturday morning — and no sign of imminent action by Congress — the administration will have no choice but to tell more than 800,000 federal workers to stay home starting Monday. Millions more civilian employees and military servicemembers and reservists, deemed critical for the protection of life and property, will have to report to work without pay, until the shutdown ends.

Top GOP Senate appropriator Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., has said the two sides remain approximately $25 billion to $26 billion apart on the nondefense spending level — a tiny fraction of the nearly $1.7 trillion at stake in the talks.

Both sides have agreed to $858 billion in defense spending, the level laid out in the defense authorization bill that overwhelmingly passed the House this week. But Republicans have dug in at Biden’s overall topline of just under $1.65 trillion, and see a path to a deal if Democrats would trim their current offer of roughly $813 billion for domestic programs and foreign aid, not counting emergency supplemental funds for Ukraine and natural disasters.

[Parties play chicken on omnibus as shutdown deadline approaches]

But Democrats believe that an agreement with such a gap between defense and nondefense spending is not only a bad deal for the party’s priorities, but also would not be able to pass the House with defections from progressives.

While omnibus deals typically receive bipartisan support in the House, Democrats are signaling they are not counting on many Republican votes as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is publicly against any omnibus agreement in the lame duck and is expected to whip against it. 

McCarthy said during a Monday Fox News appearance that Senate Republicans should not pass an omnibus until Republicans take back the House in January. 

“We are 28 days away from Republicans having the gavel,” McCarthy said. “We would be stronger in every negotiation. So any Republican that is out there trying to work with them, is wrong.”     

However, with House Republicans themselves moving into a slim majority in the next Congress, and Democrats retaining control of the Senate and White House, how much of a better deal Republicans would be able to negotiate for themselves remains murky. 

And that’s if House Republicans can even pass an omnibus with some conservative members unlikely to support a deal that would be able to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate. 

Current negotiations 

The $858 billion figure endorsed in the defense authorization measure and anticipated in the omnibus is too high for some House progressives. 

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., who sits on the Appropriations Committee, said she doesn’t support defense funding at that level, and said the Pentagon hasn’t established that it has spent previous funds in the way intended by Congress.

She said the defense policy bill-authorized level — $45 billion above the White House request — is far more than the department needs.

“They are being graced with money they didn’t even ask for,” said Watson Coleman, one of 45 Democrats who voted against the defense authorization bill on Thursday. “Why are we doing that? We could be using that money for child tax credits, and other things, like feeding children, feeding families. Things of that nature.”  

Last year, the House split up its votes on the fiscal 2022 omnibus into defense and nondefense amendments in order to garner enough votes for each to comfortably pass. The nondefense piece passed on a 260-171 vote, while the defense portion passed 361-69, with 15 Democrats voting against it. 

Both amendments received support from Republicans, with 155 voting for the defense spending and 39 joining Democrats to vote for the nondefense piece. All Democrats supported the nondefense portion, though progressive Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., voted present. 

The level of support from Republicans would be lower with McCarthy whipping against it. Republicans whipped against the current continuing resolution, and just 10 Republicans joined Democrats in voting to pass it. 

While Republicans are pointing to IRS increases and climate programs as potential areas for cuts to make up the current gap between the offers, Democratic aides argue medical research, agricultural support and small-business aid figures could take hits at the Republican’s number. 

If Democrats were to take a deal at the topline offer from Senate Republicans, the question would become if there would be enough moderate Republicans crossing their leadership and voting in support to offset any defections from House progressives.  

Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., the ranking member of the Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee, said he would consider voting for an omnibus if Republicans got higher defense spending with lower nondefense spending, even with McCarthy opposing any deal.

“I’m not opposed to an omnibus,” Womack said. “I’m not a big fan of kicking the unfinished business of the 117th [Congress] into the next year.” 

And while there is hesitancy about the defense number, House Democrats desperately want to pass an omnibus this year. 

Watson Coleman said that while she is absolutely against the defense portion of the omnibus at the authorized number, she is “very hesitant” to vote against an omnibus generally. 

“I am very concerned that if we don’t pass something, there will be people, from veterans, to senior citizens, to poor people and children, as well as government, that wouldn’t get what they need,” she said. 

The alternative that Democrats are considering if there is no topline deal, a full-year CR, would flat-fund both defense and nondefense spending, which neither party wants. 

Democrats are also preparing to release an omnibus written without Republican input but designed to earn GOP support on Monday, though Senate Republicans immediately threw cold water on the idea Thursday. 

Next Congress? 

McCarthy and other Republicans are confident that the House Republican majority in January will have more bargaining power than the party has now. Some Senate Republicans have joined McCarthy’s call to push the matter into the next Congress as well. 

Rep. Kevin Hern, R-Okla., who is taking over the Republican Study Committee in the next Congress, said Republicans want a shorter-term CR to get their hands on appropriations sooner rather than later.     

“You have to look at the slim margins we have, and what is in the best interest of everyone,” he said. “But I can tell you right now there will have to be some reduction in spending. The American people are demanding it.” 

But any omnibus spending agreement negotiated by House Republicans next year would have to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate and be signed by Biden. 

“We don’t have 60 votes in the Senate, we don’t have the Senate,” Womack said. “And the White House has a big vote. So the question is, of what significance will the changes be to cause both sides to agree that whatever we do in 2023 will be better than passing something now. I’d prefer certainty over rolling the dice.” 

McCarthy is struggling to line up the 218 votes he needs in January to become speaker, and conservatives are already signaling they will be seeking spending cuts when the GOP takes power. 

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., said he couldn’t imagine that Senate Republicans would want to push appropriations negotiations into the early days of the next Congress. 

“The House Republican majority is going to be a mess,” he said. “I just don’t think they want to have the threat of shutdowns be looming at the beginning of next year.”

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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