The Senate plans to fire up old-fashioned floor debate this week on bipartisan funding bills, but that technically does nothing to address the biggest problem on Congress’ plate: avoiding a government shutdown.
The first move there, GOP senators say, is up to Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
The Senate will take its first procedural votes Tuesday on a nearly $280 billion government funding package that has broad bipartisan support. Leaders hope the legislation will display a united front amid the spending standoff with House Republicans, as the two chambers snipe over a deal that will keep the government’s lights on past a Sept. 30 deadline.
Congressional leaders agree they’ll need a stopgap bill to accomplish that, but House conservatives are already agitating to make passage of such a funding patch impossible without major concessions that will never reach President Joe Biden’s desk. Still, Republican senators want to see McCarthy pass his version first — and even Democrats acknowledge they’re waiting to see the speaker’s next move.
“We’ve got to let the House give it a college try. If they fail, we’ll have to do something,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C) said Monday night.
Case in point: The House Freedom Caucus plans to hammer home its funding demands with conservative groups outside the Capitol on Tuesday afternoon. McCarthy’s right flank has called for billions of dollars in additional spending cuts and major policy changes, such as GOP reforms at the southern border in exchange for funding the government, or measures that would slash budgets at Biden’s Justice Department and the FBI.
House GOP leaders hope to placate their fractious conference and pass a funding bill for the Pentagon this week. But even if they could manage to pass that legislation, it stands no chance in the Senate — and the White House already threatened on Monday to veto it.
The White House accused House Republicans of “wasting time” by advancing measures that look to cut tens of billions of dollars from the two-year budget agreement negotiated by Biden and McCarthy earlier this summer. The Senate’s bipartisan spending bills would adhere to those levels, and even include billions of dollars in extra emergency cash to pad out the Pentagon’s budget, along with other agencies.
Lawmakers in both parties are anxious to see how McCarthy steers his splintered caucus when House lawmakers return Tuesday night after six weeks away. Conservatives feel particularly burned by McCarthy’s debt agreement with Biden, which passed with Democratic support, and are warning that such an outcome is unacceptable this time around — openly threatening the California Republican’s hold on the gavel.
“We’re all trying to give as much space as possible to the House to determine how they want to proceed,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), his party’s whip in the Senate, told reporters Monday night.
Any action on a short-term funding bill to avert a shutdown on Oct. 1 will likely happen at the last minute, Thune said. Both chambers will also have to wrestle over the Biden administration’s request for $16 billion in disaster aid, more than $24 billion in funding for Ukraine and billions of dollars in border assistance.
“I think that’s one of those issues when it comes together, it’ll come together quickly, but until then, there’s just a lot of discussions and conversations around, you know, what’s the best way to get it done?” Thune said.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer offered some unsolicited advice to his counterpart across the Capitol: “Don’t let 30 people way out on the extreme dictate what the House does.”
“When the House gavels back into session tomorrow, I implore House Republicans to follow the Senate’s example,” Schumer said Monday.
To successfully set that example, quick passage of a three-bill government funding package in the Senate will require cooperation from every senator, and any one lawmaker can hold up the process in pursuit of amendment votes. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) predicted Monday night that the measure could be delayed until next week, thanks to uncertainty over amendments.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the top Republican appropriator in the upper chamber, said she’s feeling “good” about things as she starts negotiating with colleagues on amendment votes and works through “complicated procedural issues” with the Senate parliamentarian, the upper chamber’s rules referee.
Collins met with GOP leaders Monday night in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office to discuss the latest on funding. While Republican amendments to the package aren’t likely to succeed, the votes go a long way toward ensuring that Senate leaders can pass the package and lay down a marker in the spending impasse with the House.
Typically, a funding leader like Collins would be a top negotiator in brokering final government funding bills that could pass both chambers. But endgame negotiations on a bicameral compromise have yet to begin, since House Republicans continue pushing to advance annual spending measures below the funding levels McCarthy agreed to with Biden in this spring’s bipartisan debt limit plan.
By shirking cross-party talks, House Republicans have “abdicated leadership,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Democrats’ top appropriator in the House.
“They don’t know how to negotiate, and they don’t want to,” DeLauro said in a phone interview, noting that House Republicans also sat out final negotiations to fund the government last December, when they were in the minority.
“At this moment, we are in some chaos and confusion here,” DeLauro said. “And I hope that we get back and that it will begin to shed some light on going forward.”
Heading into weekly leadership meetings on Monday, Senate Republicans said they also expect some trials and tribulations in the House — and have serious doubts about seeing movement on a short-term patch anytime soon.
Asked if he thinks onlookers can expect movement on a stopgap bill within the next few days or the week, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) simply said it’s “doubtful.”
“Got to work it out in the House,” Tillis added.
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.