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First House GOP spending bill clears key procedural hurdle

Concessions to Freedom Caucus and other hard-liners ensure military housing, veterans bill can move forward

Rep. Brandon Williams, R-N.Y., is seen outside the Capitol during the last votes of the week on May 25.
Rep. Brandon Williams, R-N.Y., is seen outside the Capitol during the last votes of the week on May 25. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Republicans on Wednesday narrowly averted having to scrap consideration of what’s typically the easiest spending bill to pass, adopting the rule for floor debate on appropriations for military housing and veterans benefits.

That vote was no longer considered a slam dunk as recently as Wednesday morning, as GOP leaders continued to negotiate with a band of restive conservatives, primarily the House Freedom Caucus. But GOP leaders got just enough support to start debate on the measure, which is expected to pass Thursday, with adoption of the rule on a 217-206 vote.

Before the vote, one of the conservative holdouts, Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., said they reached agreement with GOP leaders on spending levels for the full set of appropriations bills, which had been one of the key sticking points.

Party leaders got no help from Democrats on the rule and had only four votes to spare — a task clouded by a Wednesday announcement from Rep. Brandon Williams, R-N.Y., that he’ll miss votes due to complications from recent heart bypass surgery.

It wasn’t easy. Already one Republican, Victoria Spartz, R-Ind., was a committed “no” vote on the rule. And several Freedom Caucus members were meeting with party leaders in Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s office even as debate on the Military Construction-VA bill rule was set to begin.

Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry, R-Pa., said leaving McCarthy’s office that members still had policy concerns with that measure. And others wanted more information about how further cuts will be made to all the remaining spending bills, including those not slated for floor debate until September at the earliest, before letting the “milcon” measure reach the floor.

Reps. Bob Good, R-Va., and Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., said they want commitments that the bills drafted by House Appropriations Committee Republicans will be cut down by a total of $115 billion — meeting the fiscal 2022-enacted topline. That was what McCarthy agreed to during his speakership bid and what the House passed as part of its initial debt ceiling package.

Boebert said she backs the underlying Military Construction-VA measure, but the rule vote was an opportunity to extract that commitment.

“We want to make sure all of these appropriations bills are in line with what we’ve agreed to with leadership,” Boebert said. “So this is the first one and we’re gonna be very aggressive during this appropriations process.”

[Related: GOP conservatives’ demands imperil House spending bills]

Last week during a meeting with GOP leaders, there was a general consensus to allow further cuts to the Appropriations Committee-drafted bills as well as policy changes backed by conservatives.

But sources familiar with that meeting said there was no explicit commitment to include the entire $115 billion worth of cuts Freedom Caucus members were seeking. Most or all of the cuts would come from nondefense programs — pushing those agencies well below fiscal 2022, to levels last seen years earlier.

“We want to know how the entire puzzle fits together, how all the spending cuts fit together to make sure we’re going to get it to the agreed 2022 level or pre-COVID level for nondefense discretionary,” Good said. 

Spartz and Rep. John W. Rose, R-Tenn., opposed the rule on the floor.

Agriculture bill doubts

Meanwhile, prospects for a second appropriations bill the leadership planned to move this week, for the Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration, were increasingly shaky as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle continued to express concerns on both funding levels and policy issues.

Republicans face demands from ultra-conservatives to tilt the Agriculture bill further to the right at the same time some moderates facing tough races seek to move it more towards the center. And the GOP isn’t expecting any backing from Democrats.

“It’s not looking real good on that right now,” said Rep. Kevin Hern, R-Okla., chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the largest bloc of GOP lawmakers.

Conservatives were seeking billions of dollars in further cuts to the $25.3 billion Agriculture measure, which already represents a 2 percent cut from the current year and is nearly 13 percent below President Joe Biden’s request.

And at least one centrist, Rep. Marc Molinaro, R-N.Y., from a district Biden carried in 2020, opposes the bill due to language that would block sales of the birth control drug mifepristone in pharmacies, among other concerns.

“We’re certainly having additional discussions about opportunities to save even more on [Agriculture] as well as on other things,” said Rep Garret Graves, R-La., a top lieutenant of McCarthy’s. “Obviously you’ve got to get to 218 [votes], right? So I’d just say you’ve got to find the right balance, what is your maximum savings that can still get the support that’s needed to pass.”

No ‘layup’

Even the popular Military Construction-VA bill, which Rules Committee ranking member Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said late Tuesday is typically a “layup” for lawmakers, has run into partisan opposition and both bills are facing veto threats from President Joe Biden. What was once a layup is now a “Hail Mary,” McGovern said.

Hern predicted GOP leaders would successfully navigate the Military Construction-VA concerns. “I think it’ll pass,” Hern said. “’Easily’ is an interesting word these days when you only have four votes. So we’ll see what happens today.”

The Rules Committee reported out a rule for debate on the Military Construction-VA measure late Tuesday with support from all of the panel’s Republicans, including Freedom Caucus members Norman and Chip Roy of Texas. The panel made in order 41 amendments, including several from Roy and other hard-line conservatives.

But GOP leaders didn’t bake changes Freedom Caucus members and others want into the underlying text of the bill via “self-executed rule.” That’s an oft-used mechanism for incorporating amendments into a bill without an up-or-down vote on the floor, instead simply adopting the changes as part of the rule itself.

Before the vote Wednesday, Graves wouldn’t comment on prospects for the Military Construction-VA rule, saying negotiations were ongoing. But he emphasized that failure to pass any bills in the House would weaken the GOP negotiating position in talks with the Democratic-controlled Senate.

“If we don’t act, if we don’t have a House position here, then the default is continuing riders and funding levels out of the [fiscal 2023] omnibus that was, you know, a partisan bill,” Graves said.

The Senate isn’t expected to pass any spending bills before the August break, though by the end of the day Thursday appropriators in that chamber will likely have reported out all 12 of their bills, which contain far more money than their House counterparts. House appropriators have reported out 10 of 12 bills.

Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., suggested that even if bills don’t pass in either chamber, the Appropriations panels could start pre-conferencing during the August recess based on what’s been reported out of committee.

“We at least have bills out of committee. You can start having negotiations between the two bodies. Then we’ll come back in September,” Scalise said. “Let’s not sell ourselves short.”

When lawmakers return after Labor Day, the House is in session for just 12 voting days before the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30.

A temporary fallback continuing resolution is expected to avert a partial government shutdown, something Hern said he expected would get enough support to pass. But Freedom Caucus members this week have questioned even a CR’s prospects, hinting that even a shutdown might be better than compromising on funding levels.

Ellyn Ferguson, Laura Weiss and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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