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Republicans look to use debt-limit tactics in government funding fight

In the coming months, Congress will need to pass spending legislation before a Sept. 30 deadline to avert a government shutdown.
House Speaker of the House Kevin holds a news conference after the House passed The Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 on May 31, 2023.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy during a news conference after the House passed The Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 last month.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Heading into a summer of spending fights, House Republicans are planning to use the same strategy that proved successful in raising the debt ceiling.

That approach — crafting legislation that satisfies GOP members without regard for what might be palatable to the Democratic-led Senate and White House in order to strengthen their hand at the negotiating table — will be put to the test a second time as Congress comes under pressure to pass funding legislation to avoid a government shutdown in the fall.

Before leaving for a two-week congressional recess, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy huddled Friday afternoon with a group of key lawmakers that included conservative hard-liners, lawmakers responsible for making spending decisions, and allies who helped negotiate deals to seal his speakership and raise the debt ceiling.

“We’ve obviously had our difficulties along the way, and we have much more work to do,” said Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C., one of the hard-liners, as he walked out of the meeting on Capitol Hill.

Bishop and other conservative bomb throwers in the House Freedom Caucus have been agitating for steeper spending cuts than the ones negotiated between McCarthy and President Joe Biden as part of last month's deal to raise the debt ceiling and avert the nation's first-ever default.

This month, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and a handful of other rabble rousers ground legislative action on the House floor to a weeklong standstill — making clear that they are prepared to blow up the GOP majority unless McCarthy accedes to their demand that funding return to last year's spending levels, or even lower.

The hardball tactics appear to be paying off. Top appropriators, who typically don’t like colleagues meddling with the purse strings of the House, said shortly after the standoff that they support introducing all 12 annual appropriations bills at funding levels lower than the Biden-McCarthy deal. And they reiterated that strategy on Friday.

“I think we should get the best spending deal we can. I regard the debt ceiling deal as a ceiling, not as a floor,” Rules Committee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., a senior appropriator who is not a member of the Freedom Caucus, said after the meeting with McCarthy.

That idea was echoed by Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., one of the people McCarthy appointed to negotiate the debt ceiling deal. Making cuts that go beyond those agreed to in the deal with the White House, he said, “is not about satisfying members of the House Freedom Caucus.”

“It’s about rightsizing government,” Graves said. “It’s about trying to back out some of the government programs and dollars that have been spent that quite frankly have nothing to do with government obligation or responsibility.”

Conservatives’ push to cut spending below levels spelled out in the debt deal is putting the House and Senate on a collision course just months before lawmakers need to fully fund the government. Money will run out on the last day of the fiscal year, Sept. 30, unless Democrats and Republicans reach an agreement and pass funding legislation.

Senate appropriators this week said they plan to stick to the levels negotiated by Biden and McCarthy last month.

“We’re heading toward trouble. OK? That’s clear,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., an appropriator.

McCarthy’s strategy appears to mimic his approach during the debt ceiling fight: draft legislation with the input of the entire GOP conference as a base for negotiating before considering any legislation that would require Democratic support. The tactic is born somewhat out of necessity since angering too many members of the conservative flank could result in a rebellion against his speakership.

“What he’s really trying to do is make sure that we’re successful as a conference,” Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., a Freedom Caucus member, said when asked about McCarthy’s message in Friday’s meeting.

The most conservative Republicans are agitating for steep cuts that Democrats argue will drastically reduce or hinder government services. Donalds said he personally believes agencies should return to spending levels from the 2019 fiscal year, prior to the pandemic. 

“Even before Covid-19, it’s not like the agencies were lean, mean fighting machines. I mean, they were bloated too. So I think the first step here is getting back to...that level. But in order to do that, you’re gonna have to have the members roll up their sleeves and staff members do some extra work and really examine line items,” he said.

Five of the eight appropriations bills that have been released by the House Appropriations Committee were written to spend less than the 2022 fiscal year, Graves said, and another two were written to spend less than 2019.

Donalds also insisted that conservatives would not agree to pass an omnibus spending bill, which rolls together all 12 spending bills into one package to make it easier and faster to move those bills through the Capitol.

“We are not going to support an omnibus. We are not supporting that,” Donalds said. “So the Senate better wise up and get right because it’s a new day here on Capitol Hill.”

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Pete Aguilar, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, told reporters this week that House Democrats are “completely ceding” the appropriations process to the Senate, which is writing spending bills using the numbers agreed to during the debt limit negotiation — and suggested McCarthy would be responsible if there’s a government shutdown in the fall.

“This is just to get the votes so Speaker McCarthy can remain Speaker McCarthy. He has to make every promise he can, whether it’s censures, resolutions, all of that, or undisclosed pieces of paper that had promises made on them,” Aguilar, D-Calif., said. “That doesn’t make me feel good because it clearly shows that House and Senate numbers will be in very different places.”

Even Senate Republicans are skeptical of the path their House counterparts are taking.

“The chance of passing all the appropriation bills where the House and Senate agree on numbers is almost zero,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an appropriator.

Republicans are facing a tough timeline to pass their spending bills. After seven straight weeks in session, House lawmakers will be home for two weeks for the July 4th recess; they're also set to take the entire month of August off.

Emerging from McCarthy’s office, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., who controls the floor schedule, said the 12 spending bills will eat up much of the House schedule as lawmakers file amendments. The defense appropriations bill alone “will probably have hundreds of amendments filed,” he said.

“So each of these bills takes days on the floor,” Scalise said before walking out of the Capitol. “And we’re gonna go one step at a time and work with our members every step of the way, including during this two-week break.”