WASHINGTON — Leaders of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus are softening their hard line on government spending, fearing they'll be sidelined in the next government shutdown fight if they stick to implausible demands.
Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., the group's chairman, said he now supports the $1.59 trillion overall spending level negotiated between President Joe Biden and former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, backing off the $1.471 trillion level that conservatives had been demanding.
Perry told reporters that Congress must not go above that level.
"No more gimmicks. Most of the House voted for it. Most of the Senate voted for it. That's where we have to be. Don't be adding stuff onto it," he said Wednesday. "Let's set that as the number."
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, a Freedom Caucus member, also said he now favors $1.59 trillion as long as there are “no gimmicks” and no “side deals” to raise the number.
He said the earlier demand of $1.471 trillion was a negotiating tactic.
“We wanted $1.471 trillion,” Roy said. “But I can be honest now because we’re kind of past that. 1.471 is you plant your flag over here, knowing you’re probably going to, at best, get 1.530 or 1.540 or somewhere in there. So that’s always why we’ve been tugging to the right on the spending restraint.”
The shift came on the day Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., met with Senate Republicans and cautioned that Congress may be forced to swallow a yearlong continuing resolution, or CR, if the two parties are unable to reach a full funding deal, senators said.
Congress will have to address government funding early next year to avoid a government shutdown. It faces a two-tiered funding deadline, with some parts of the government running out of money on Jan. 19 and others running out on Feb. 2, based on an idea crafted by House Republicans.
“I think most members of Congress understand the problems of a yearlong CR and what it does to the agencies’ ability to have to spend money exactly like they did last year,” said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., a member of the Appropriations Committee. “It really handicaps them.”
Both parties prefer to avoid a yearlong stopgap bill. House conservatives worry that it would leave them worse off by largely continuing a status quo established when Democrats had full control of Washington.
“We have nothing to show to this point when it comes to spending, with a Republican majority in the House,” said Rep. Bob Good, R-Va.
Some Republicans hope the Freedom Caucus shift will make it easier to get a funding deal after their aggressive earlier demands led to the ouster of McCarthy, R-Calif., when he was unable to satisfy them and resorted to a stopgap bill in late September.
Still, there are plenty of hurdles. The Republican-led House and the Democratic-controlled Senate are miles apart on spending preferences. The House is attaching a host of controversial policy measures popular with the right, from anti-abortion provisions to anti-LGBTQ measures, that are dead on arrival in the Senate.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the Appropriations Committee chair, said the Biden-McCarthy deal must be honored in its entirety.
“House Republicans need to stick to the full agreement they negotiated and an overwhelming majority of Congress voted for. The Fiscal Responsibility Act has already forced difficult cuts on domestic discretionary spending — the negotiation has happened, and I will not entertain further cuts,” she said in a statement to NBC News when she was asked about the Freedom Caucus shift.
“House Republicans have got to get back to the full level of resources in the spending agreement they negotiated and abandon the radical poison pills they’ve demanded — to restrict access to medication abortion nationwide and so much more — so that we can move forward on reasonable, bipartisan full-year spending bills,” she said.
There's a long way to go to prevent a lapse and a shutdown.
"I don't know exactly how it's going to get done, but I feel confident that we'll get it done," Boozman said.