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Centrist Republicans warn far-right tactics could backfire in government funding fight

Many GOP lawmakers are frustrated by aggressive demands from ultraconservative colleagues, saying they could end up empowering Democrats in must-pass legislation.
Rep. Stephanie Bice, R-Okla., Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb.
Reps. Stephanie Bice, R-Okla., and Don Bacon, R-Neb.Getty Images/AP

WASHINGTON — Center-right Republicans in the House are sounding the alarm that a series of aggressive demands by far-right lawmakers might gum up government funding legislation ahead of a crucial deadline to avert a shutdown.

The GOP members are pushing back against a band of 21 ultraconservatives who sent Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., an ultimatum with explicit threats to vote down funding bills that fall short of their demands, which include cutting spending beyond the levels in a recent budget law.

Rep. David Joyce, R-Ohio, an Appropriations Committee member and the chair of the center-right Republican Governance Group, said that if hard-right members aren’t realistic, the GOP majority will have to deal with House Democrats instead in the lead-up to the Sept. 30 funding deadline.

“I understand and appreciate their tactics. That makes for good sound bites or potential for their media saying they’re the only ones who want to stand up and stop the spending. We’re all conservative, but there’s a majority of us who want to see this country work,” Joyce said in an interview. “We can work together as Republicans, or we can work together with the Democrats.”

Joyce added that overly aggressive tactics could lead the GOP-controlled House to fail to pass its opening bid and instead empower Democrats. “Our failure to act does strengthen the hand of the Senate and the office of the president,” he said. “We’re going to shut down the country over this? Shut down all spending? No, we’re going to come to an agreement.”

Joyce also pushed back against a letter by House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, demanding a series of funding cuts or restrictions for the Justice Department and the FBI in appropriations legislation.

“I’ll say this to Jim to his face: Those are just requests,” Joyce said. “You don’t get prioritized just because you’re Jim Jordan.”

Rep. Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma, a co-chair of the Republican Main Street Caucus, said some of the 21 signers of the letter to McCarthy are shifting their demands after they initially insisted that bills move organically through committee.

“Those folks that have signed that letter are now moving the goalposts a little bit,” Bice said in a brief interview. “And I think that’s frustrating for a lot of us.”

In their letter to McCarthy, ultraconservatives also insisted that “rescissions” of unspent money can’t count toward their insistence that funding revert to fiscal 2022 levels.

It’s a familiar struggle for centrist Republicans, who are often agitated by the tactics of their far-right colleagues in the House Freedom Caucus yet struggle to stop them. Last week, a similar group stiff-armed McCarthy into adding divisive amendments to the annual defense policy bill, including abortion and transgender provisions, making the typically bipartisan measure partisan and setting up a fight with Democrats.

Implied in the new pushback from GOP centrists is the threat to vote down funding bills that cater too much to the far right. But the right flank doesn’t take such threats seriously, believing instead that its center-right colleagues will ultimately cave to its wishes.

“If you’re a moderate, you pull the gun out and you never expect to have to fire it. Whereas if you’re a conservative and you pull a gun out, you’re ready to pull the trigger,” said a House Republican staffer, who requested anonymity to describe the internal dynamic.

Along the way, some Republicans fear, loading up government funding legislation with unpopular provisions — like steeply cutting rural energy programs, defunding federal law enforcement or adding anti-abortion measures — could cost politically vulnerable Republicans re-election in 2024, with Democrats salivating at the idea of weaponizing their votes.

Some Republicans say the House will end up reverting to funding levels in the debt limit law, even though McCarthy has greenlighted the far-right demands to pass an initial bill with less spending before negotiations with the Democratic-led Senate and President Joe Biden.

“What happens is we go a little to the right on these votes, and by the time we negotiate with the Senate and the president, we’re back with the debt ceiling agreement,” said Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., who represents an Omaha-based district that Biden won in 2020. “We’ll be looking back to the debt ceiling agreement, I believe, by the time we’re done.

“And then they’ll be all mad,” Bacon added.

Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., the other co-chair of the Main Street Caucus, said the intra-party disagreement is primarily over tactics.

“It may be that when the rubber hits the road, there’s increased tension. But a lot of Republicans want to spend less money,” Johnson said, adding that some in the conference don’t have to vote for the bipartisan final funding deal. “Coalitions on final passage don’t have to look the same as coalitions for initial passage.”

Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., one of the 21 signers of last week's letter, said conservatives aren’t worried about the more moderate GOP lawmakers’ voting down a bill that leans too far to the right.

“If they do, then it is what it is,” Norman said with a shrug.

“I think we’re doing what’s good for the country,” he said. “We were not happy with the debt ceiling deal. … The only leverage we have now is the appropriations.”

A sticking point for the right is that it views certain provisions in appropriations bills as accounting gimmicks, which could prove problematic to meeting the targets in a way 218 Republicans can rally around.

“I’m very pro-rescissions. I’m just not pro-rescissions’ being used to backfill or elevate the overall spending for the agency,” said Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas. “That is what is happening now. ... So that’s where the debate lies on the appropriations.”

Asked about the prospects of a shutdown on Oct. 1 if Congress fails to reach a deal, Roy said that was up to Biden.

“That depends on whether the administration wants to work with us to change policies that need to be changed,” he said, adding that the House Republicans must use the “power of the purse” to fight for their values. “You got to force the hand of the administration. We’re moving the needle.”