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Sources: Speaker pushing lower DHS spending in ‘302(b)’ talks

Unusual move intended to create pressure for border, migrant deal

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., speaks to reporters in the Capitol on Dec. 6, 2023.
Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., speaks to reporters in the Capitol on Dec. 6, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Republican leaders are putting downward pressure on the level of funding allotted for the Department of Homeland Security in final fiscal 2024 appropriations negotiations, a major shift in traditional GOP orthodoxy, sources familiar with the talks say.

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., believes that lower funding for the department in the annual appropriations process could inspire President Joe Biden to make concessions on migrant and border policy that House Republicans have pushed for, the sources said.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, and Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., are currently negotiating subcommittee allocations, also known as 302(b)s. Appropriators are aiming to wrap those up this week, though House GOP conservatives opposing the overall topline funding levels Johnson agreed to with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., were pushing the speaker to scrap that deal on Thursday.

Johnson said as he left a meeting with Freedom Caucus and aligned GOP lawmakers that he hadn’t made any commitments.

Blowing up his deal with Schumer could upend the entire appropriations process at this point, though conservatives argue a longer-term stopgap measure is fine with them since it would trigger automatic cuts under the debt limit law enacted last year. Of course, a stopgap measure that would result in such cuts likely wouldn’t be able to pass the Senate, so pursuing this strategy would all but guarantee a government shutdown.

Traditionally, leadership takes a hands-off approach on subcommittee allocations, allowing appropriators to hammer out how funding is spread among the 12 annual bills following a topline agreement.

And year after year, Republicans seek higher levels of funding for DHS in these talks, along with higher levels of defense spending. Democrats often aim to boost funding for the Labor-HHS-Education spending bill and other nondefense and domestic priorities.

But Johnson leads a conference that includes some members who say the House should shut down the government if the administration doesn’t agree to change its migrant and border policies.

“If we’re not working to extract the security of our nation and willing to shut the government down for a period of time in order to secure our nation in part, then I don’t think we’re having the right fight,” Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., said Wednesday.

Johnson and Biden spoke Wednesday, and the speaker “strongly encouraged the president to use his executive authority to secure the southern border,” Johnson spokesman Raj Shah said.

In a December letter, Johnson laid out a series of policy changes that he wants Biden to implement, including the end of the so-called “catch-and-release” policy for migrants at the border and “renewing construction of the border wall.”

Johnson also wants changes to parole and asylum policies for migrants, including the reinstitution of the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program.

As the fiscal 2024 appropriations talks continue, subsequent negotiations in the Senate tying border enforcement to war funding Biden wants for Israel and Ukraine are ongoing. However, there is no sign that there is a breakthrough around the corner in those talks.

The spending deal Johnson and Schumer announced provides for $886.3 billion for defense and $772.7 billion for nondefense programs — flat funding for domestic and foreign aid accounts, and a more than 3 percent defense boost.

Those are the levels negotiated during the debt limit talks last summer, though Johnson secured $16 billion in additional rescissions of previously allocated spending to pay for higher nondefense funding, instead of using accounting maneuvers that wouldn’t save any money as initially contemplated.

Time is running short, with a Jan. 19 deadline to avoid a partial government shutdown that would affect agencies covered by four of the 12 annual appropriations bills. Funding for the agencies covered by the other eight runs out Feb. 2.

Schumer announced Thursday he would take the first procedural step needed for a stopgap spending measure by filing cloture on a motion to proceed to a shell vehicle. The Senate would take up that measure, which is expected to run no later than March, after the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday next week.

Johnson could accede to conservatives’ demands and ignore the Senate version, which would trigger a partial shutdown. Or, he could ignore the Freedom Caucus and seek Democratic votes for a shorter-term funding patch, which could put his own job at risk.

David Lerman and David Jordan contributed to this report, which first appeared Thursday on CQ.com.

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