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Deeper spending cuts may be in play to break House deadlock

Caps included in bipartisan agreement were a ceiling, McCarthy says

Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., gives remarks at Statuary Hall in the Capitol on Wednesday.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., gives remarks at Statuary Hall in the Capitol on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Speaker Kevin McCarthy sought to defuse a protest from his party’s right flank that stalled House business Wednesday, opening the door to lower spending caps than Congress agreed to last week in a bipartisan debt limit law.

The California Republican said he was hoping to get floor votes back on track after 11 hard-right conservatives derailed a vote Tuesday on a rule that was needed to pass several bills on this week’s agenda that would curb executive branch power, including any effort to ban gas stoves.

“We’re working through it,” McCarthy told reporters. “We can’t hold up the work for the American people.”

There was no immediate sign late Wednesday of a compromise plan that would satisfy hard-line conservatives, however.

McCarthy said a little after 6 p.m. that Republicans would keep working through the issue into the evening, but that no more votes would be held this week. 

“We’re going to come back on Monday,” McCarthy said. “Everybody’s got a voice inside the conference. We’ll listen and we’ll work through it and come together.”

Some members of the House Freedom Caucus have said they were disturbed by last week’s debt limit package because it allowed for more discretionary spending next year than the government spent in fiscal 2022. Some said McCarthy had promised to hold discretionary spending to fiscal 2022 levels in January when he won the speakership after several days of voting.

McCarthy denied making such an ironclad promise Wednesday. “We never promised we’re going to be all at ’22 levels,” he told reporters. “I said we would strive to get to the ’22 level or the equivalent … amount of cut. We’ve met all that criteria.”

The debt limit law set a defense spending cap at $886 billion, a roughly 3 percent increase over this year’s level, as President Joe Biden requested. Nondefense spending would be capped at $704 billion, a $40 billion or 5 percent reduction from fiscal 2023. However, the two parties made side deals, including add-ons above the statutory caps, that Democrats say would keep nondefense spending essentially flat.

As he worked to placate his conservative detractors, McCarthy suggested Wednesday the House could still agree to write appropriations bills that spend less than the debt limit deal allows.

“The one thing you’ve got to realize, whenever you put a cap, that’s the ceiling,” he said. “We can always spend less. I’ve always advocated for spending less money.”

Later, McCarthy put a finer point on it: “If we can write [spending bills] to even lower levels, then we should do it in the House.”

House Agriculture Appropriations Chairman Andy Harris, R-Md., said Wednesday that he thinks appropriators will still write to the fiscal 2022 level — though take advantage of clawbacks from spending bills passed in the last Congress to lessen the effects of the cuts.

“I think we will write to a [topline] allocation at the [fiscal 2022] level, the speaker agreed that’s what we’re going to write to,” he said. “Obviously, that’s up to the leadership and the chair of the committee, but I think that’s the way it’s heading. And it’s a reasonable way to head.”

But it’s not clear that lower spending levels would win backing from GOP moderates and pass the House. Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing for higher defense spending than allowed in the debt limit deal and plan to take up a supplemental spending bill.

“Sometimes I feel like Goldilocks, but we’re going to get right to the middle and we’re going to solve this,” McCarthy said.

In a blow to GOP senators, however, McCarthy said flatly Wednesday he would oppose a supplemental spending bill.

“Working a supplemental right now is only blowing up the agreement,” he said. “That’s all about spending more money. So no, I do not support a supplemental.”

He said any additional money needed for the Ukraine war should be considered as part of the appropriations process with detailed justification for why it’s needed and how previously appropriated money has been spent. “We just don’t throw money at things,” he said.

Part of the right-flank protest appeared to ease Wednesday when Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., announced the House would vote next week on a measure by Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., to block tougher regulations on stabilizing braces for guns. Clyde had said a day earlier he was being punished by leadership on his bill because he had voted against the rule that was needed last week to pass the debt limit package.

Scalise said he didn’t know if promises made to Freedom Caucus members to support McCarthy for speaker in January would need to be renegotiated now to get things back on track.

“I wasn’t part of that deal in January so I would imagine whoever was part of that deal will have those conversations,” Scalise said.

And when asked if spending levels would have to be lower than those allowed in the debt limit package, Scalise said, “”Those are all conversations we’re having right now.”

Aidan Quigley contributed to this report.

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