The bill funding military housing and veterans’ benefits is supposed to be the easiest one of the 12 annual appropriations measures to pass. Members of the House Freedom Caucus and other hard-line GOP conservatives are about to test that thinking.
Twenty-one Republicans have signed a letter pledging to oppose any spending bill unless it meets their terms. Another, retiring Rep. Victoria Spartz, R-Ind., is promising to vote against rules needed to bring any bills to the floor.
So far, with little to no Democratic support expected for the Military Construction-VA bill due to partisan riders added by the GOP-controlled House Appropriations Committee, there’s no clear path to passage.
And if the “milcon” bill can’t pass the House, there’s probably little hope for any of the others, including the Agriculture bill that’s also currently slotted for the floor this week.
President Joe Biden has threatened to veto those two bills. But not being able to pass any in the House would likely blow up any chance for a “regular order” process of conferencing bills with the Senate and avoiding a nasty year-end pileup, as Speaker Kevin McCarthy has promised.
Some of the biggest proponents of that regular order process have also been the biggest critics of the spending bills that House Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, has produced.
The dozen fiscal 2024 bills her panel has been working on already undershoot the spending limits McCarthy agreed to with President Joe Biden in the debt limit package — though not by much when offsets are factored in, and the conservatives want much more.
Six signatories on this month’s letter to McCarthy appeared at a Tuesday press conference to reiterate their demands, including cutting the bills by another $115 billion, down to fiscal 2022 levels. That’s the amount Granger would rescind from previously appropriated but unspent funds to make room for more money next year.
“We want the ‘22 levels, and we want no rescissions,” Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., said. “No smoke and mirrors for the American people. We want a budget that trims the fat, goes to programs that will defend and protect this country.”
The Military Construction-VA bill is one that none of the conservatives have proposed to cut. But they want more policy riders attached to make their point on cultural issues.
Among the newest of the 100-plus amendments submitted to the House Rules Committee, which is meeting Tuesday afternoon, is one from Freedom Caucus and Rules member Chip Roy, R-Texas, that would prevent the VA from changing its mission statement, which is displayed at around half the agencies’ facilities.
Roy’s amendment would preserve the current statement, which is this: “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise ‘to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan’ by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s veterans.”
The new mission statement, which the VA announced in March — arguing it would be more inclusive — is this: “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise to care for those who have served in our nation’s military and for their families, caregivers, and survivors.”
Rules could make in order that amendment and others sought by conservatives on social issues, but there’s no guarantee they would survive an up-or-down vote on the floor. That’s why a more or less open amendment process may not be enough to win Freedom Caucus and other conservatives’ backing for the rule, which is critical just to get the measure to the floor.
Another concern expressed by conservatives on Tuesday is they haven’t had enough time to read the bills.
“We haven’t seen the language, they promised us 72 hours, and they need to deliver that to us as well,” Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz. said.
However, both the Military Construction-VA and Agriculture bills were made public in mid-May and were advanced through committee in mid-June. The Rules Committee announced July 14 the process for accepting amendments, and Biggs himself submitted 10 amendments to the Agriculture bill and one to the Military Construction-VA measure.
In addition, conservatives say they won’t support any of the spending measures on the floor until they can see all 12 of them.
“We are united in the belief that we need to see what the entire cost is, before we can start working on individual pieces of it, because again, you will be left with a very small piece of that pie that we might have to take a lot of that spending out of,” said Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont, who might challenge Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., next year.
All 12 bills have been released by the Appropriations Committee, and House appropriators have reported 10 of the 12 appropriations bills out of committee, with just the Commerce-Justice-Science and Labor-HHS-Education bills remaining.
Further, the committee adopted subcommittee allocations June 15 laying out the spending levels for each of the bills, and noted in the report accompanying the allocations that rescissions would be used.
House Freedom Caucus members are expected to meet Tuesday night to plot strategy, and Republican leaders are expected to conduct a “whip check” on the Military Construction-VA bill at votes Tuesday night.
At the outset of the Rules meeting Tuesday, the panel’s top Democrat took aim at the GOP’s apparent disarray.
“[Freedom Caucus] members were outside ranting and raving, once again, held a press conference where the most right wing of the right wing were promising to vote down any rule, any funding bill, that is not exactly what they want in the way they want it, how they want it, and when they want,” Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said. “And what do they want? I don’t even think they know what they want.”
Democrats in play?
Republican leaders have one potential card to play on the Military Construction-VA bill: Democratic votes.
Four House Democrats backed the GOP-written defense authorization bill: Maine’s Jared Golden, New Mexico’s Gabe Vasquez, Washington’s Marie Gluesenkamp Perez and North Carolina’s Don Davis.
Golden and Perez represent districts former President Donald Trump carried in 2020. Perez and Vasquez are freshmen whose races are considered Toss-ups in 2024 by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. Golden’s race is considered Lean Democratic.
Golden is a Marine Corps veteran who saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Davis served in the Air Force.
Aides to Davis and Vasquez said they were currently undecided on the Military Construction-VA bill, while aides to Golden and Perez didn’t immediately respond.
Still, it’s unlikely any Democrats back the rule for floor debate, putting the ball back in the hard-line conservatives’ court whether to allow any spending bills — including one as politically sensitive and popular as Military Construction-VA — to come to the floor at all before lawmakers head home for August.
Across the Capitol, no bills are expected to pass before the summer break. But Senate appropriators, who are writing their bills above the caps in the debt ceiling deal, have reported eight of the 12 bills out of committee with wide bipartisan support, with the remaining four set to be considered Thursday.
Those are the Defense, Interior-Environment, Labor-HHS-Education and Homeland Security spending bills. Some of those may be more partisan than the previous rounds, however, and the absence of Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., due to COVID-19 may be felt.
All of these factors point to lawmakers doing the bare minimum after recess to simply keep the government operating beyond the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30. But even a short-term stopgap funding bill may be a tall order in the current environment.
House Freedom Caucus member Bob Good, R-Va., said Tuesday that McCarthy shouldn’t accept any compromises in order to avert a partial shutdown.
“We don’t fear a government shutdown,” he said.