No government funding bills are scheduled to hit the House floor this week, an ominous sign for Republicans returning to Washington for the first time since their Thanksgiving recess.
Lawmakers face a mid-January deadline to fund the government or enter a partial government shutdown, and the window for completing its work is fast closing.
Losing an entire week without passing an appropriations bill won’t lead to a shutdown. But it doesn’t help either.
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After this week, the House is set to be in session for just 16 legislative days before the first of a two-part deadline to fund the government on Jan. 19 — with the rest expiring two weeks later, on Feb. 2. This week’s appropriations stall only exacerbates the time crunch.
New Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) is facing pressure from some of the same Republicans who toppled his predecessor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)
“We need to show some real guts [on spending cuts],” said Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), who was among the eight Republicans who helped oust McCarthy. “That’s what we’ve kind of asked for.”
The initial schedule amounts to an admission from Republican leaders that the slim majority is stuck on how to handle its remaining appropriations measures.
Conservative Republicans are insisting the chamber pass all 12 of the government’s annual appropriations bills individually — which they say would provide leverage in negotiations with the Democratic-led Senate.
GOP leaders insist they’re on track to meet that demand, but long-standing disagreements over funding levels, social policies and other issues have led to several of the remaining funding bills either being torpedoed on the House floor or pulled from consideration.
With a razor-thin majority and Democrats voting against all the bills out of opposition to cuts, Johnson has little room for error.
While Johnson had expressed hope that the chamber’s first weeklong break in months would help calm the internal GOP tensions that followed McCarthy’s ouster, the time off has apparently not resulted in a plan to complete the party’s funding measures.
Instead, the new Speaker is facing the same predicament as the old: fighting to keep the government open — which inevitably means working with Democrats — without angering conservative spending hawks ready to accept a shutdown to win more of their demands. If those conservatives gave Johnson “a mulligan” on the short-term spending package that prevented a shutdown in mid-November, they’re also sending signals that he won’t have the same luxury when the next set of deadlines comes around.
Johnson has said he will not push through another short-term stopgap, as the House has twice this year, creating the real possibility of 2024 kicking off with at least a partial government shutdown.
The Speaker, for his part, is expressing confidence that Congress will have its work done by the looming deadlines, telling reporters in Florida on Monday: “We’re optimistic that we’ll be able to get those negotiated and done in time so that we will not be facing a government shutdown.”
But the chamber’s to-do list tells a different story.
The Jan. 19 deadline includes programs and agencies covered by two of the remaining funding bills that the House has struggled to pass.
One bill, covering agriculture programs and the Food and Drug Administration, has seen resistance over a provision limiting access to the abortion pill known as mifepristone, a disagreement that has bedeviled lawmakers for months.
Another measure, relating to Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, faced disputes over cuts to Amtrak, prompting GOP leadership to pull a scheduled vote on the legislation earlier this month.
The House has been unable to pass three of the eight funding measures due by Feb. 2, some of which have been held up over abortion-related provisions, proposals pertaining to the FBI and spending cuts.
At the heart of Johnson’s dilemma is the fact that the conservatives insisting on passing all 12 appropriations bills are largely the same lawmakers who have opposed a number of those proposals when GOP leaders have tried to bring them to the floor. Members of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus have led the way in pushing for lower spending levels.
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), former head of the Freedom Caucus, defended that conservative opposition, urging GOP leaders to redouble the effort to pass all the spending bills.
“You have to sometimes go back to the drawing board and work it out. It’s supposed to be a deliberative body, and it makes it more deliberative that way,” Biggs said before the Thanksgiving break.
Republican leaders, however, are also getting squeezed from the moderate side of the conference — they are starting to flex their votes to voice objections to cuts and social policies in the bills pushed by the right wing.
Four swing-district New York Republicans joined with more than a dozen conservatives to tank a procedural vote on a funding bill before the Thanksgiving break.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who has opposed several of the GOP’s funding bills, said House Republicans “of course” can find a path to agreement. But she’s also shifting the blame for the bottleneck to the Senate, which has passed only three of its appropriations bills, versus seven in the House.
“The Senate’s not doing their job. We are doing our job. We are passing, and working to get our appropriation bills passed,” Greene said just before the break. “The question … for the Senate is: When are they going to pass the bills that we’ve already sent over there? There’s two chambers that fund the government.”
The House GOP’s struggles on its remaining funding bills are just one aspect of the time crunch. After figuring out its own position, the chamber must come to an agreement with the Democratic-controlled Senate, which has lagged behind the House in passing funding measures and appears headed toward a massive omnibus package — a strategy Johnson says he’ll reject.
“We broke the omnibus fever — we call it the ‘omni fever,’” Johnson said Monday.
The Senate has also marked up bills at higher levels than what McCarthy negotiated in a debt limit increase deal with the White House in June.
As the funding fight drags on, senior appropriators worry that the House GOP will be on weak footing in interchamber negotiations if the conference continues to struggle with clearing its conservative spending bills.
“My goal is to move the most conservative bills we can out of the House to put us in the best possible negotiation position with the Senate,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a House Appropriations Subcommittee chair, said before the Thanksgiving break.
“But if we can’t pass, we don’t get the Republican votes to do conservative bills,” he continued, “it just weakens our hand.”