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    Wednesday, February 21, 2024

    House Republicans expected to break logjam on Pentagon funding bill Thursday

    House Republicans on Thursday are expected to advance a Department of Defense appropriations bill after successfully appeasing some hard-right lawmakers to end a broader blockade on considering long-term spending bills.

    The apparent movement came during an almost three-hour meeting Wednesday focused both on long-term spending bills and the more immediate task of avoiding a government shutdown after Sept. 30. During the closed-door meeting, a majority of the House Republican conference found consensus around more than $1.5 trillion in discretionary spending for the upcoming fiscal year. And while they reported progress on a bill to keep the government open in the short term, a plan to avoid a shutdown was not finalized.

    House Republicans are trying to find a way out of a quagmire that has provided the toughest test of the tenure of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as he tries to hold together a fragile majority that includes hard-right lawmakers eager to see their priorities, including steep spending cuts, reflected in appropriations bills.

    For months, members of the House Freedom Caucus have called on McCarthy and colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee to provide a top-line number for all 12 bills funding the government until late September 2024.

    Finding consensus on the more than $1.5 trillion in total discretionary spending for the coming fiscal year swayed two Republicans, Reps. Ralph Norman (S.C.) and Ken Buck (Colo.), to flip and voice support for a typically noncontroversial rule that sets parameters for debate on a bill, in this case funding the Defense Department. Passage of the rule is required before debate on the bill can begin.

    Five lawmakers, including Norman and Buck, voted against the rule on Tuesday after leaders had already delayed consideration of it last week, prompting Republican colleagues to publicly lambaste the holdouts as grandstanding obstructionists.

    But not everyone in the GOP conference is satisfied with an evolving plan on how to fund the government for a short amount of time and avert a shutdown on Sept. 30.

    Finding a solution to end the blockade on long-term spending bills marks at least a small win for the House Republican conference, which has been plagued by its ideological divisions on how best to cut spending, to the point where it had been unable to move on funding the government. Thursday's rule vote on the defense appropriations bill would mark the first tangible sign of progress.

    But the stakes remain incredibly high to avert a government shutdown since House Republicans are just starting a process to fund the government for the coming fiscal year. Roughly half a dozen holdouts remain vehemently opposed to funding the government in the short term.

    The path forward is complicated by McCarthy's insistence on passing funding measures with only Republican votes, a demand made by many in the Freedom Caucus who say they will introduce a motion to remove him from the speakership if he relies on Democrats to pass legislation. With only a four-vote margin, House Republicans have been - and will continue to be - tested throughout the fiscal fight.

    House Republicans have yet to finalize a solution that would draw enough GOP votes to send a short-term funding proposal to the Senate. Failure to do that would prohibit lawmakers demanding passage of all 12 appropriation bills by the end of the month from advancing that goal - at least until the government reopens.

    Asked whether he is confident that GOP leaders can schedule a vote on the stopgap measure, McCarthy said that "we're very close" to a deal, acknowledging that holdouts remain.

    But during the Wednesday conference meeting - described as a real-time dealmaking session by lawmakers - Republicans flipped a significant number of roughly 20 holdouts who were originally against a conservative short-term funding proposal that included a series of asks from the Freedom Caucus but still drew ire from fiscal conservatives who demanded a lower top-line number.

    Once Republicans settled on funding the government at $1.526 trillion for the next fiscal year, Rep. Kevin Hern (Okla.) said that a group of moderate New Yorkers who represent districts won by Joe Biden in 2020 stood up to say they would agree with cuts that match that number if their colleagues could find agreement on a stopgap bill.

    Several vulnerable incumbents met behind closed doors in McCarthy's office earlier Wednesday to stress to leaders that the demands by their hard-right colleagues to significantly slash funding levels could impact their reelection chances because cuts to popular programs could alienate constituents who benefit from them.

    "I'm okay with saying to the American people that we have to rein in federal government, we have to shrink the size, scale and scope of this federal government," Rep. Marcus J. Molinaro (N.Y.) said after the conference-wide meeting as he stood alongside Reps. Michael Lawler (N.Y.) and Nick LaLota (N.Y.). "We have to be responsible with the taxpayer dollars, and we have to secure the border."

    During the meeting, McCarthy pushed a stopgap bill that would fund the government for 30 days at roughly $1.471 trillion, a significant slash to existing levels. The legislation would also include the entirety of a House GOP border security bill and establish a commission that would propose solutions to Congress on bringing down the debt.

    That spending cut was already embraced by Republicans earlier this year when they passed a partisan debt ceiling bill, but it was rejected when the White House and McCarthy compromised on a higher cap.

    The parameters of the House Republican proposal are dead on arrival in the Senate, where leaders of both parties support a clean extension of current fiscal levels that includes President Biden's requests for aid to Ukraine and natural disaster relief.

    But GOP leaders have yet to move forward on a short-term deal because a handful of Republicans remain adamantly against continuing to fund government at existing levels - even if their proposal calls for spending to be slashed significantly. During the closed-door meeting Wednesday, Rep. Matt Gaetz (Fla.) said seven Republicans remained staunchly opposed. But then Rep. Bob Good (Va.) - who also did not vote for McCarthy for speaker earlier this year - said he would support a stopgap measure if the top-line number was acceptable.

    "We all recognize, no matter how determined we are, that this is not a one-person conference. It's a 222-person conference," Good said after acknowledging that he had accepted the $1.5 trillion in spending for the next fiscal year.

    Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) said she opposes the stopgap bill because it crosses her "red line" of allowing funding for Ukrainian defense against the Russian invasion. She has told party leaders that if they remove Ukraine funding from the bill, she would support it.

    Another holdout, Rep. Tim Burchett (Tenn.), also said he remains opposed to the temporary funding bill because of House leadership's failure to pass a budget resolution and then move the 12 appropriation bills one at a time. Rep. Dan Bishop (N.C.) and Cory Mills (Fla.) similarly decried the process, stressing earlier in the week that they also recognized that passing the stopgap bill means it would return from the Senate as a less conservative bill.

    "The CR tells you that you didn't do your job," said Mills, referencing the short-term continuing resolution. "It's still a recognized failure."

    - - -

    Mariana Alfaro and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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