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House uncertainty puts shutdown specter right back on the table

Time on the floor working on appropriations now must be spent figuring out who the next speaker will be

Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., speaks to reporters in the Will Rogers Corridor in the Capitol on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023.
Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., speaks to reporters in the Will Rogers Corridor in the Capitol on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The chances of a partial government shutdown next month have risen significantly with the House’s ouster of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., as speaker, lawmakers and aides in both chambers believe.

With the current stopgap spending law set to run out Nov. 17, legislative action, including consideration of two appropriations bills set for this week, has ground to a halt in the House.

All eyes are on the upcoming election for speaker, with Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., and House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, declaring bids Wednesday. Republican Study Committee Chairman Kevin Hern, R-Okla., is also considering a run.

“It’s an all stop, buddy, until we get this [speaker] seated,” Rep. Morgan Luttrell, R-Texas, said Wednesday. “That’s absolutely unfortunate. We owe the American public the appropriations bills, plain and simple.”

In its final action before ousting McCarthy Tuesday, the House adopted a rule to bring the fiscal 2024 Energy-Water and Legislative Branch appropriations bills to the floor. But no further action on those bills is anticipated until there is a new speaker.

At least one House Republican — McCarthy ally Rep. Garret Graves, R-La. — wants the speaker pro tempore, Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., to kick-start appropriations talks with the Senate. McHenry could be in the position for an extended time period, Graves said.

“I think we need to be very thoughtful about the roles and the authority that he can exercise in that position,” Graves said. “I would love to . . . be in a situation where we can move forward on appropriations bills and other things right now, and at least have some informal conversations with the Senate, where we don’t find ourselves set behind a month, maybe just a few days.”

However, with no historical precedent for McHenry’s role, it is not yet clear what authorities he will be able to exercise as speaker pro tempore. Graves said he is having conversations with the parliamentarian about McHenry’s powers.

It’s also unclear if the unelected McHenry would have the support of the Republican conference to start appropriations negotiations with the Senate, with so much about the fiscal 2024 process up in the air without a speaker.

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., an Appropriations Committee member in that chamber, dismissed the idea of trying to “pre-conference” spending bills before they emerge from the full House and Senate.

“Not if somebody doesn’t want to lose a limb,” he said.

‘Worries me a lot’

McHenry and Graves were the architects of the debt limit deal that set spending caps but faced opposition for not going far enough in the eyes of some in the conference. The appropriations cap they ultimately negotiated was $119 billion higher than the hardest-line spending hawks in the party wanted and were under the impression McCarthy promised them back in January in exchange for letting him become speaker.

Senators in both parties believe that the lack of a speaker imperils the chances of keeping the government open next month.

“It worries me a lot, the House is in chaos and dysfunction,” Senate Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said Wednesday. “We’ve got to deal with all these issues. This Republican infighting is really hurting the country right now.”

Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said it is “certainly going to be harder” to avoid a shutdown. He said he didn’t get the sense that the “crazy eight” Republicans who voted with Democrats to remove McCarthy would be more cooperative in passing legislation with a new speaker compared to McCarthy.

“Without that, that means whoever the next speaker is has to work with Democrats, or maybe just take their cue from the Senate as we send stuff over,” Cramer said.

Whoever ultimately gets the speaker’s gavel, which could be as soon as next week, will likely want to put their stamp on how the process shakes out.

The two apparent front-runners for the job, Scalise and Jordan, each cited appropriations in their letters seeking support. Scalise was a little more specific.

“We are in the midst of considering individual appropriations bills in an open and transparent process, with Members from across the Conference offering amendments to ensure their constituents and districts are represented,” Scalise wrote. “We laid out an aggressive schedule to complete floor consideration of all 12 appropriations bills to go into Senate negotiations with the strongest hand possible, and we cannot afford to lose any more time achieving that goal.”

Jordan in his letter cited “three fundamental things the House must do,” including “pass the bills that need to be passed, do the oversight, and rein in the spending.” He went on to write he’s been “among the leaders in pushing for fiscal discipline my entire career.”

Jordan is a founding member of the Freedom Caucus and its first chairman. Unlike Scalise, Jordan hasn’t voted for big omnibus spending packages or sought earmarks, though it’s unclear how much of a strike earmarking would be against Scalise considering the overwhelming majority of House Republicans supported keeping the practice after winning control in the 2022 midterms.

The House has passed four of the dozen spending bills so far and made plans to try to pass two more this week before votes were scrapped after McCarthy’s ouster. The “aggressive schedule” he and Scalise laid out called for completing all 12 bills by early November, though that timetable is now in doubt.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, meanwhile, has approved all 12 of its bills but none have passed the full Senate.

Appropriators in that chamber are aiming to get their three-bill package featuring the Agriculture, Military Construction-VA and State-Foreign Operations measures moving again.

But with only two days in session this week because of funeral services for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and recess next week, movement is not imminent on that legislation. A Senate aide said appropriators are still working through amendments senators want to offer to try to get a time agreement for votes.

Appropriations ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she is “disappointed” that the Senate would not be considering the package this week, and blamed Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. “That has nothing to do with the House,” she said. “That has to do with scheduling decisions made by the Democratic leader.”

Ukraine aid, border security

The speaker drama also has done nothing to clear up uncertainty over Ukraine aid, another major sticking point in trying to avert a government shutdown. After money to support Ukraine was stripped from the stopgap bill over the weekend, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle vowed to include another round of funding in the next available vehicle.

After a classified Senate Appropriations Committee briefing on Ukraine, Collins and Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., vowed to work in a bipartisan way to provide more funding. “It is clear as day that continued American military and economic support for Ukraine is indispensable, and critical to our own national security,” they said in a joint statement.

House Republicans, however, have their own ideas, and many don’t view more money for Ukraine as a top priority.

In that regard, Jordan may be more in line with hard-liners in the GOP conference, having voted “no” on a stand-alone bill to provide $300 million for training Ukrainian solders that was stripped out of the massive $826 billion Defense bill before that passed.

“The most pressing issue on Americans’ mind is not Ukraine. It’s the border situation and it’s crime on the streets,” Jordan said in a CNN interview Wednesday.

Jordan was among the 117 Republicans voting against that stand-alone bill, while Scalise was among the 101 supporting it.

“It’s going to be hard under any circumstance right now just because of the way the numbers are moving in the House right now on the subject of Ukraine,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said Wednesday. “Whoever the new speaker is, I’m sure it will have a significant impact on what additional support for Ukraine looks like. And we’ll have to figure out how to pull together a coalition to pass something over there.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is among those who want to package the two issues, Ukraine and the border, together in one bill.

“I think the Senate will put together a strong border, strong Ukraine package. I think there’s more than enough votes in the House on both,” Graham said Wednesday.

Whether it would be enough to avoid a pre-Thanksgiving shutdown, Graham wasn’t sure. “We’ve got to wait and see what happens,” he said.

David Lerman and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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