House Republicans are discussing a three- to four-week stopgap funding measure to avert a partial government shutdown starting Oct. 1 that would push decisions on military and economic aid for Ukraine as well as disaster relief into the regular fiscal 2024 spending bills.
The halting progress on next year’s appropriations was laid bare Wednesday when House GOP leaders were forced to postpone consideration of the rule for floor debate on the $826.4 billion Defense spending bill amid bipartisan opposition. With conservatives angling for unrelated spending concessions and Democrats united amid a White House veto threat, it wasn’t clear when a resolution would emerge.
The need to buy time for further negotiations stems from a steep divide between the chambers over appropriations levels, particularly for nondefense agencies. Despite a deal on spending caps reached in May to avert a debt ceiling crisis, House GOP conservatives have insisted on appropriating below those levels while the Senate, on a bipartisan basis, has added more money.
House Financial Services Chairman Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., helped negotiate the spending caps on behalf of Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. Before a closed-door GOP conference meeting Wednesday, McHenry acknowledged that ultimately Congress is likely to stick to those caps but that in the meantime House Republicans’ position is a healthy one to give them a stronger negotiating position.
“What some Republicans in the Senate, some Democrats in the Senate want to do is break those caps. That is not a sustainable position in the House,” McHenry said. “If they want to spend over and House Republicans want to spend less than the caps, well then where do we end up? The caps. I think that’s a reasonable outcome of this thing.”
Even without additional appropriations, the short-term continuing resolution extending current funding levels could still carry its typical “anomaly” that frees up a year’s worth of funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s immediate needs, in this case nearly $20 billion.
But the Biden administration’s supplemental request for an additional $16 billion in FEMA funds would migrate to the fiscal 2024 Homeland Security spending bill that had been tentatively slotted for the floor next week, which could also be a vehicle for emergency border security funding and other border measures House Republicans are seeking.
One option raised at Wednesday’s conference meeting was to package the DHS and Pentagon bills with disaster aid money into a combination that, in concert with Military Construction-VA spending the House already passed, could be negotiated with the Senate. That was the pitch from GOP leaders as described by lawmakers leaving a closed-door conference meeting Wednesday morning, even as leadership struggled to rally the votes to bring up the massive Defense spending measure.
On that bill, GOP leaders have a very thin margin both on the rule for floor debate and on final passage, exacerbated by some key absences — including Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., for cancer treatment, and Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., who suffered injuries working on his ranch during the recess.
Democrats will have two fewer votes on their side: Alaska Rep. Mary Peltola is returning home after her husband’s death in a plane crash. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., is out with COVID-19.
The rule is the initial procedural hurdle, with a handful of Republican holdouts able to prevent the bill from even reaching the floor. On Tuesday night, the Rules Committee approved a rule allowing for 184 amendments, including numerous proposals from the most conservative elements in the GOP conference.
That includes two amendments co-sponsored by Bob Good, R-Va., which would bar the Pentagon from carrying out plans to remove or rename Confederate symbols, including the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Yet Good said “we’ll see” when asked whether he’ll support the rule, though for unrelated reasons: He wants the remainder of the House’s spending bills cut back by $115 billion, the amount conservatives say McCarthy agreed to in January when they agreed to back him for speaker.
“We’ve got a $2 trillion annual deficit that we’re going to own as Republicans, and we can’t come together and agree to cut $115 billion? That’s embarrassing if we don’t do that,” Good said.
House Rules Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., said he and others pointed out there was nothing in the rule or the Defense bill itself that conservatives oppose — many of their amendments will be considered, it is full of conservative policies already, and few if any oppose the spending level in that bill.
“I’ve heard no complaints about the bill. It’s all about something else that’s unrelated to the bill. Why don’t we just deal with everything in front of us — the rule and the bill?” Cole said. “If we’re going to use every bill as a weapon to achieve some unrelated objective, it’s going to be very hard to legislate.”
If the House GOP can’t pass its Defense bill, it makes things more difficult for the $63 billion Homeland Security measure leaders want to take up next week and supplement with more FEMA and border money.
Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., another leadership ally, said it makes more sense to deal with border issues sought by conservatives in the DHS spending bill rather than through separate House-passed legislation, which has little chance in the Senate.
“I think a better approach might be to take the appropriations approach, which is something we need to be doing now,” Hill said. “So let’s line up a Homeland Security appropriations bill that has a majority of Republican support, identify those things that were priorities in HR 2, fair point, and then let’s move disaster assistance with it.”
Among House Republicans, Ukraine aid continues to take a back seat, though Cole acknowledged it could eventually be attached to a CR. Hill said there were still unanswered questions about how much money is still available to be spent, for one thing.
“I think the administration owes the Congress a thorough vetting on how much money we’ve already appropriated that is not yet distributed to Ukraine,” Hill said. “And then the detailed comparison that we’ve asked for consistently, or what the U.S. has done compared to other nations … in the humanitarian bucket, the military bucket, the Ukraine monthly budget support bucket and the planning for the reconstruction.”
No decisions have been made on the time frame or substance of a CR.
Hill said he favors a monthlong CR, which would take the House right up until Oct. 27, after which the chamber is scheduled to be out until Nov. 6. A three-week option was also discussed at Wednesday’s conference meeting, sources said. That may be designed as a happy medium between the 24-hour bill some have floated and the 60 days McCarthy was initially considering.
Either way, it seems unlikely much progress can be made in that short a time period. The two chambers are already $72 billion apart on fiscal 2024 spending, even before any further cuts to the House bills are made in deference to conservatives.
The Senate looks poised to make progress and potentially pass a three-bill package next week. The Biden administration endorsed the measure Wednesday, albeit with a few caveats. Lawmakers in that chamber were still vetting which amendments could be offered, and Senate action was slow-going with an all-day, all-Senate closed-door briefing on artificial intelligence Wednesday.
House Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said Wednesday that a few weeks wasn’t enough time to hammer out differences on spending bills and that a stopgap measure should run into November or early December.
“Otherwise, two weeks, four weeks, you have continuously the specter of a shutdown, which we can’t do,” DeLauro said.
Paul M. Krawzak, Laura Weiss and Caroline Coudriet contributed to this report.