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House GOP leaders scrap spending bill votes amid infighting

Focus now shifts to individual spending bills, even with partial shutdown nine days away

Speaker Kevin McCarthy has struggled to find something his conference can agree on.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy has struggled to find something his conference can agree on. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Republicans abandoned plans to take up a stopgap funding measure this week after members of the fractious GOP conference warned there would not be enough votes to pass a continuing resolution to avert a partial government shutdown next month. 

Party leaders informed members that no more votes would be taken Thursday and the House would recess subject to the call of the chair. Lawmakers were advised to keep their plans flexible, and that “ample notice” would be provided for any votes they planned to schedule on Friday or over the weekend.

Members weren’t being officially sent home for the weekend because House leaders lacked the votes to adopt a motion to adjourn, sources familiar with the situation said.

The immediate plan instead is to ready more of the chamber’s 11 remaining full-year appropriations bills for votes, focusing on passing those to establish a firm negotiating position for talks with the bigger-spending Senate.

But with just nine days until a shutdown could start, the pivot effectively punts the first move on a CR to the Senate, or possibly a bipartisan group of House lawmakers who could try to force a floor vote through a discharge petition.

The change in outlook came hours after House GOP detractors surprised their party’s leadership by blocking a Defense spending bill from going to the floor for the second time this week.

“There was an understanding and appreciation of the fact that there’s not going to be a continuing resolution,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., told reporters after meeting with Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., with a handful of other lawmakers. “And I think we did make some progress talking about which individual single-subject spending bills we would want to sequence and in what order. This is what I’ve been calling for for more than eight months and it seems as though my colleagues are moving toward my position.”

Chopping block

The pivot comes as a number of the dozen House Appropriations subcommittee “cardinals” huddled with McCarthy and other GOP leaders in the speaker’s office on Thursday afternoon after they were forced to yank the Defense bill. After the meeting, attendees confirmed the plan to instead take up full-year spending bills before a CR.

The group discussed a plan to reduce the overall cost of the fiscal 2024 spending bills by $60 billion, with exceptions for Defense, Homeland Security and the Military Construction-VA measure, the only spending bill the chamber has already passed. That would bring the full set of bills into compliance with the new $1.526 trillion “topline” for fiscal 2024 that the GOP conference largely accepted in a meeting Wednesday night.

The focus now is on bringing those reworked bills to the floor, although in what form remains to be seen.

Appropriators met Thursday evening to discuss the path forward. 

Labor-HHS-Education Chairman Robert B. Aderholt, R-Ala., said that panel members talked about bringing the Defense, Homeland Security, Agriculture and State-Foreign Operations bills to the floor next week. These bills would be considered using one rule, but then would get individual floor votes, he said. 

Appropriators are also moving toward holding markups for the remaining two bills — the Labor-HHS-Education and Commerce-Justice-Science measures — as soon as next week. Members will meet on Tuesday to discuss amendments for those bills, which Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., said have a Saturday due date for consideration. 

Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Steve Womack, R-Ark. said appropriators discussed the path forward under the new, lower topline. But they are faced with a difficult choice, Womack said: cut $60 billion from the two remaining bills, or revisit the whole slate of bills and cut more from each bill. 

Womack said it would be impossible to find $60 billion in additional cuts in the Labor-HHS-Education and Commerce-Justice-Science bills. But the alternative, using a “self-executing rule” to cut the bills down as part of a Rules Committee amendment or bringing Appropriations staff back together to find those cuts in other bills, is difficult for him to accept. 

“I’ll have to carefully evaluate whether or not I can vote for bills that have already cleared committee, ready to go, and then be faced with perhaps either a technical cut, in Rules … or whether there will be an expectation that I will get my staff back together and go after more cuts,” he said. 

Rules Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., called a self-executing rule “a possibility” but said his committee would not do so without the consent of the Appropriations chairman who wrote the bill. 

“We’re not about to be a super Appropriations Committee, we’re just an instrument where the committee, working with leadership, can reshape the bill if they think they need to,” said Cole, himself the chairman of the Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee. 

Gaetz said GOP leaders needed to start bringing up bills with cuts in them rather than just focus on the House’s Defense measure, which contains a nearly $29 billion boost over the current year’s comparable spending.

“I think we had some members who were concerned that if the overall strategy here is to cut spending, we don’t really signal a sincerity toward that objective when we start with the bill that increases spending the most,” Gaetz said.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., leaves a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Womack said it was going to be difficult to produce bills that live within the new, lower topline funding structure. “In CJS, are you going to cut prisons?” he said, referring to the draft Commerce-Justice-Science bill that the full House Appropriations Committee hasn’t even been able to approve at higher spending levels.

“I can go from bill to bill to bill and I can show you things that people are going to be hard-pressed to accept in terms of additional cuts,” Womack said. “Hell no, they’re not going to become law. But maybe it gives us an opportunity to have a stronger conversation during conference.”

Defense bill tinkering

While appropriators try to identify which programs are on the chopping block, GOP leaders are tinkering with potential changes to the Defense bill, which suffered a rule defeat for the second time this week on Thursday.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., changed her vote to a “no” on Thursday, letting her displeasure be known that the underlying bill would provide another $300 million for Ukraine security assistance, just as the fiscal 2023 omnibus package did. But removing that set-aside in the bill would anger other members of the GOP conference who want to aid Ukraine, sources said.  

Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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