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Progress seen in House GOP spending talks

Enough declared holdouts remain to sink revised package, at least for now

Rep. Cory Mills, R-Fla., detects a "softening" of GOP opposition, but not his own — Mills says he's still a "no."
Rep. Cory Mills, R-Fla., detects a "softening" of GOP opposition, but not his own — Mills says he's still a "no." (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Republicans appeared to be moving closer to agreement Wednesday on an opening bid for stopgap funding legislation that would keep the lights on at federal agencies beyond Sept. 30 and pave the way for their chamber to take up its full-year appropriations bills.

At least a handful of conservative holdouts still maintained their opposition as of Wednesday night, which would be enough to sink a revised bill unless GOP leaders are able to change some minds in the next few days. Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is expected to keep the chamber in session on Saturday if necessary.

Even if GOP leaders’ new effort is successful, however, it was starting to look more like a bid to reopen the government after a brief shutdown, given the deadline is 10 days away and the Senate is likely to ping-pong a much different bill back to the House.

The arrangement slowly emerging from a closed-door House GOP Conference meeting would revise the initial leadership-backed, 31-day stopgap funding bill to reduce the overall annualized funding rate by $119 billion to the $1.471 trillion figure conservatives want.

The measure would preserve the restrictive border policies in line with much of a separate House-passed bill earlier this year, while adding a new fiscal commission to tackle long-term debt challenges. The latter was a key ask of Rep. Victoria Spartz, R-Ind., who’s been highly critical of McCarthy, and was expected to swing her in favor.

Following the continuing resolution’s passage, the tentative plan is to get the fiscal 2024 spending bills back on the floor at an overall $1.526 trillion topline.

That figure would require cutting $60 billion out of the initial versions written by the GOP-controlled House Appropriations Committee, which were deemed mostly unacceptable by Freedom Caucus and other ultra-conservative members.

While less than the $115 billion in cuts demanded by conservative hard-liners, it’s still likely to be a tough pill to swallow for centrists.

“I think there’s a legitimate concern that we’re being asked to cut too deep,” said Rep. Marc Molinaro, R-N.Y., a freshman whose district backed President Joe Biden in 2020.

‘Getting real close’

But the plan laid out by McCarthy on Wednesday afternoon appeared to be making substantial inroads with holdouts. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., said he thought the measure could get the 217 votes needed for passage, and that as added insurance, absent GOP members were expected to return.

“There are definitely those who are stating that they’re gonna be on board, those who weren’t before,” Rep. Dan Meuser, R-Pa., said during a break in the meeting. “It’s getting real close.”

Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., one of the lead negotiators on the earlier stopgap bill that conservatives rejected, was optimistic coming out of the meeting.

“I will tell you that is a hugely productive meeting, where I think people are really being honest, they have dropped some of the political B.S. and are doing everything they can to try to find common ground,” Johnson said.

First up would be a vote on the $826.4 billion Defense appropriations bill that GOP leaders were forced to pull from the floor this week. That measure, which would be exempt from the $60 billion in cuts, still wasn’t a surefire bet for passage, according to Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif. But he thought at minimum they could adopt the rule for consideration and fully debate the bill and amendments.

Even Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., one of McCarthy’s chief antagonists throughout this year, said the movement toward individual spending bills was a positive step. However, he said he still wouldn’t vote for the CR and that there could be upwards of seven members with a similar view.

One of those is Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who said the measure would continue funding for Ukraine from last year’s spending law and for agencies she considers part of a “weaponized” government, among other things.

Greene also wants language barring any funding to implement federal COVID-19 mask or vaccine requirements and to repeal the permanent appropriation for the office of special counsel John L. “Jack” Smith, who is investigating alleged election interference by former President Donald Trump.

Rep. Cory Mills, R-Fla., said he was also opposed to the emerging stopgap bill though he detected some “softening” among prior declared “no” votes. Reps. Dan Bishop, R-N.C., and Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., said they would vote “no” as well.

That means GOP leaders still have some work to do before being able to bring any CR to the floor.

‘Nothing weaker’

Top Republicans and veterans of numerous legislative battles have been trying to get across to the rank and file that without their own bill to unify around, they have little hope of extracting any policy concessions out of the White House and Democratic-controlled Senate.

They consistently point to the debt ceiling debate this spring and say if the House hadn’t passed its own, more conservative bill, they likely would have been forced to swallow a “clean” bill with no wins for Republicans to point to.

“I’ll tell you, there’s nothing weaker than sitting back and bitching when you haven’t done anything. I mean, that’s just that’s a nonstarter for us,” Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark. “We need to get something out of this House, get it over to the Senate, and then wait and see what we get back.”

Womack said the end result is very likely to be whatever the Senate can agree to on a bipartisan basis — which was nearly certain to endorse spending levels McCarthy agreed to with Biden in the debt ceiling package. Then the question would be whether McCarthy could get a “majority of the majority” to back the bill, coupled with enough Democratic votes to get it to Biden’s desk.

The problem for McCarthy with that approach is if he relies on Democratic help, Gaetz is readying a “motion to vacate” the speaker’s chair, which would allow a handful of GOP detractors to oust McCarthy if all Democrats join with them.

McCarthy says he’s ready for a fight, but few who lived through the 15 rounds of balloting for speaker in January and all the chaos that ensued want to live through that again.

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