WASHINGTON — A brewing battle over how to fund the federal government is poised to escalate this week when Congress returns from a two-week recess.
The House Republican majority is on a collision course with the Senate as appropriators in both chambers advance conflicting versions of a sweeping package, which must become law by Sept. 30 to prevent a government shutdown.
Unlike the House, Senate leaders have moved on a bipartisan path and key senators say they intend to reassert themselves after taking a back seat in the recent debt ceiling negotiations.
Yet divisions over U.S. aid to Ukraine and the inclusion of GOP-backed abortion restrictions and anti-LGBTQ policies have further complicated work on the must-pass bill, with a month-long August recess giving Congress limited time to hammer it out.
Seeking to appease ultraconservative members who are angry about the budget agreement in the debt ceiling deal, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and House Appropriations Chair Kay Granger, R-Texas, have announced they will pass funding at lower levels than established in the recent law.
Democrats have blasted that as a breach of the agreement.
“What Speaker McCarthy is doing is increasing the risks of a government shutdown,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is charged with writing government funding bills along with its House counterpart.
“Clearly, it’s a violation of the agreement that Speaker McCarthy struck with the president,” said Van Hollen, who accused McCarthy of “catering to his very far right” members. “It’s clearly going to make for some rocky moments.”
Top House Republicans, who voted a series of appropriations bills out of committee before the July 4 recess, say they want to redefine how spending agreements are perceived.
Granger called the debt ceiling budget agreement “a ceiling, not a floor” for the next round of government funding. “That is why I will use this opportunity to mark up appropriations bills" at the lower level that was established in fiscal year 2022.
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, said House conservatives are trying to right the perceived wrongs of the debt limit battle, including funding levels they believe were too high.
“We have major disagreements with both how, and what, occurred with respect to the debt ceiling increase. So now we’re trying to put the band back together again,” said Roy.
In addition to policies going after abortion and LGBTQ rights, House Democrats have criticized other measures that Republicans added to their appropriations bills, including cuts to rural energy funding, a prohibition on military diversity programs and repeal of clean-energy tax breaks under the Inflation Reduction Act.
It remains to be seen how firmly McCarthy will insist on the lower spending levels and conservative policy add-ons. Some in the House GOP see it as a first bite at the apple before negotiations with the Senate begin in earnest. Looming over McCarthy is the need to keep his thin majority unified in order to protect his speakership, with ultraconservatives tending to drive the hardest bargain.
While House Republicans battle with Democrats, the Senate is taking a different approach in marking legislation at the agreed-to caps and avoiding policies that are poison pills for either party.
“In the Senate, we are working diligently through regular order on a bipartisan basis to advance appropriations bills,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote to colleagues in a Sunday letter outlining a busy July schedule.
Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Vice Chair Susan Collins, R-Maine, issued a joint statement vowing to move “full steam ahead and in a bipartisan way.”
They also vowed to assert the Senate's power, a signal that the funding debate will play out differently than the debt limit bill.
“We are both committed to ensuring that the voice of the Senate is heard through the appropriations process and expect a busy summer of markups and continued bipartisan deliberation,” Murray and Collins said.
Murray made it clear the GOP push to fund the military at a higher level while slashing domestic funding was a nonstarter for the Senate.
“As this process continues to move forward, I am going to insist that the programs families depend on every day get the same kind of attention and urgency we constantly see for the Pentagon,” she said at a recent committee meeting when members unanimously approved measures for the military, veterans, agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.
McCarthy is also at odds with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Ukraine aid. Many House conservatives are skeptical of continuing to fund the country's defense against Russia's war, but McConnell has been adamant about staying involved.
Meeting with service members at Fort Knox last Wednesday, McConnell said the cause represents “the most important thing going on in the world right now, which is to defeat the Russians in Ukraine.” He said that while some believe the war is not important for the U.S., “that’s not my view” and that it’s “not the majority view of Republicans in the Senate and Democrats as well.”
It will be a busy September, with Congress also facing Sept. 30 deadlines to agree on a new farm bill and reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration. And the tensions over funding the government could chill the climate for negotiations.
“They’re reneging on what they negotiated,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said of House Republicans. “Why negotiate with people if they’re not going to stand by what they’ve negotiated?”