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Fall session is all about spending, NDAA fights — and McCarthy’s ‘Hobson’s choices’

Regarding trust, Biden team has 'spent all their coins,' GOP senator warns

Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., will be at the center of a spending fight this fall.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., will be at the center of a spending fight this fall. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Fights over federal spending and military policy — and maybe even impeaching President Joe Biden — will dominate the fall and winter legislative session, meaning work on ironing out deep partisan differences on other legislation might be punted into next year.

Several rounds of negotiations on federal spending levels, border security and additional aid to Ukraine will dominate the balance of September, senators from both parties said last week. Both chambers also must hammer out a compromise version of the fiscal 2024 defense authorization bill, then send a final version to Biden’s desk — but House conservatives are vowing a fight over a bill once considered must-pass.

Interviews and exchanges with lawmakers and congressional observers last week made one thing crystal clear: The rest of the year will be mostly all about a multibattle brawl over federal spending. That coming fight will pit conservative House Republicans against not only Democrats but moderates in their own conference — and most Senate Republicans.

Caught in the middle: Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., attempting to avert a government shutdown while warding off a conservative group that has threatened to try ousting him if he does not toe their line.

“Various cliches come to mind as it relates to this fall-winter legislative schedule, but I am thinking they focus on Speaker McCarthy: ‘On the horns of a dilemma’ and ‘painted into a corner’ and ‘Hobson’s choices,’” said G. William Hoagland, a former top budget and appropriations adviser to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

“My thoughts center on the decision McCarthy must make as to whether he works with the Senate — which means working with Democrats — and therefore has a choice between avoiding an extended government shutdown or facing a motion to vacate his speakership,” Hoagland added. “I see the Senate in the driver’s seat here. They are more united and bipartisan on the spending bills. And, therefore, can jam the House, forcing McCarthy to make that ‘Hobson’s choice.’”

He was referring to the notion of an illusion that multiple options exist.

A floor fight over the speaker’s gavel would add spice to what senators and observers agree will be a noisy fall and winter session. It also could include a formal impeachment inquiry in the House of Biden and already includes bad blood among senators about Alabama GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s blockade of military promotions over objections to a Pentagon abortion access policy.

The first of several tightropes McCarthy must walk is a brewing fight over Biden’s request for $44 billion in emergency monies for Ukraine, disaster relief and border security. The speaker is eying busting the administration’s request into multiple bills, aiming to assuage conservatives’ concerns. In the Senate, some Republicans support the thrust of the border request, but want changes. Like their House counterparts, they also are reluctant to support the kind of massive spending measures leadership has cobbled together late in the year for over a decade to fund the entire federal government.

“So I don’t want to shut down the government. I’m not going to do an omnibus,” Senate Appropriations member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters Wednesday. “I voted for the last one. I’m not going to do that again.”

“We’re headed to a December effort by [Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer] to put it all together, something that funds most of the government in one bill,” he said, repeating for emphasis: “Not gonna do that again. I will support the appropriations process in the Senate. I don’t see it ending with getting the appropriation bills from the House cleared through the Senate and onto the president’s desk in a large number.”

On the farm, in the air

Both chambers also must deal with two expiring high-profile authorizations: One for farm and agricultural policy and another for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R–Ky., in August told a Kentucky Farm Bureau audience a final farm bill would not be ready by its Sept. 30 deadline. Key programs would continue receiving federal resources after Oct. 1, but a crunch could hit around Jan. 1. Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has said Congress could allow the law to lapse — but only if it looks like a short gap before lawmakers pass a replacement.

The FAA measure, which sets funding amounts and OKs revenue collection for the Airport and Airway Trust Fund programs, also expires Sept. 30. The House already has passed a five-year reauthorization, but a Senate version is bogged down due to partisan differences including pilot training, as well as slot and perimeter expansions at Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport. But even if that all gets ironed out, the chambers’ bills are still quite different, meaning a lengthy conference process would be required to try finding enough common ground for a compromise bill. That means a temporary extension is most likely this year.

‘Spent all their coins’

Walking the halls of the Senate last week did not inspire confidence that lawmakers will suddenly turn on the spigot of significant policy legislation — though some said committees could continue passing such measures in anticipation of 2024 legislative work.

Several veteran senators just shrugged when asked what they think might get done this month and until both chambers adjourn in December for a holiday break. But their six-week summer sojourn did seemingly nothing to bridge the parties’ gaping differences on military promotions, tax code changes, abortion policy, immigration, Ukraine aid and federal spending.

When asked last week if they could point to any bill other than a spending measure or the National Defense Authorization Act that they expect to get floor time this fall and winter, a number of Democratic and Republican senators could not name a single one.

Louisiana GOP Sen. Bill Cassidy said there is little chance much else passes because, in his caucus, “the problem is there’s no trust in the administration.” He noted the White House’s recent emergency spending request’s inclusion of border security dollars, but dismissed it because “they do whatever they can to thwart any meaningful enforcement, and they’re not terribly honest about it.”

“Long ago, my dad cut out a little quote from George Shultz, ‘Trust is the coin of the realm.’ They have spent all their coins,” Cassidy said, referring to administration officials on border security. Democratic senators this week countered that GOP members were too quick to discount the administration’s border security plan, saying Republicans lack one of their own.

On another hot-button issue, tax policy, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., a member of the Senate Finance committee’s subpanel that oversees taxation, said he is “not aware of much active discussion right now” about a measure that could pass this year.

Heading into an election year with the House and Senate majorities up for grabs, lawmakers in both parties might have an incentive, however, to pass some tax changes before the holidays. “There’s a lot of … areas in the tax code that get attention at the end of the year,” Cardin told reporters. “So the question is: can you find a path forward where you get a bill over the finish line?”

‘It doesn’t exist’

As Cardin and others look for possible common ground on tax code revisions, members of both parties remain hopeful to keep alive a 62-year streak of sending a Pentagon policy bill to the president’s desk.

But the House’s version of the fiscal 2024 bill contains a number of provisions pushed by House Freedom Caucus members or others from the chamber’s most conservative group. All are non-starters for senators, setting up yet another “Hobson’s choice” for the speaker when the time comes for floor votes on the coming compromise version.

“There is no National Defense Authorization Act that Chip Roy votes for and Democrats vote for,” House Armed Services ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash., said at a recent Defense News-sponsored conference, referring to the Texas Republican who is one of McCarthy’s main conservative antagonists. “It doesn’t exist.”

An NDAA fight would only further eat up scant remaining legislative days, leaving other bills — including some bipartisan Senate measures — stalled until the new year.

Some members expect some bills already approved by committees could hitch a ride on the final spending package or the defense bill. But with little expectation of any other major policy legislation moving, those bills face an uncertain fate in 2024, an election year. Members are typically not keen to hand the other party legislative wins on which to run in the months before an election.

“I do not see much else getting done in September than this appropriation fight, and even with some programs’ authorizations expiring, they can continue to operate with temporary funding,” Hoagland said. “Throw in the House conservatives wanting to impeach the president, Tuberville holding hostage military nominations … and we are in for a very nasty and prolonged fall and winter legislative schedule.”

Daniel Hillburn and Mark Satter contributed to this report.

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