A faction of conservative Republicans is raising warnings about federal spending, two weeks after backing tax-cut legislation that would raise federal deficits by $1 trillion over the next decade.
They say that compromises struck with moderate Senate Republicans, as well as negotiations to keep Democrats from filibustering spending bills, will contain measures that increase government spending.
Mark Meadows, the North Carolina Republican who is chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, wouldn’t say how far he’s willing to push Republican leadership. His goal is to make sure “we don’t end up bloating our federal spending any more than it already is.” After meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Wednesday, Meadows said there had been progress and that he hoped for a resolution within “hours, not days.”
Meadows said the Freedom Caucus is now focused less on pushing for a stopgap funding measure that runs through Dec. 30, instead of the Dec. 22 date backed by House leaders, and more on getting a commitment to pass a defense spending bill separate from 11 other spending measures. Doing that, and pairing it with disaster aid and children’s health insurance funding, could force Senate Democrats to go along with higher defense spending without similar increases for domestic priorities, he said. Current funding runs out on Saturday.
As Congress turns attention to funding the government after months devoted to passing the tax cut package, some of the lawmakers who dismissed Congress’s own analysis that the tax cuts would add deficits are raising alarms about spending. That may threaten some of the deals Senate Republican leaders cut to secure votes for the tax plan, including heading off cuts to Medicaid and legislation to stabilize Obamacare insurance markets.
Conservatives angling for a funding extension until Dec. 30 argue that would give them more leverage over spending demands from Democrats as well as the promises of potentially costly legislation made in the Senate. They also want to use the time to secure more money for the Pentagon.
“You’ve got the major part of our conference making sure our war fighters are taken care of,” said Mark Walker, a North Carolina Republican who chairs the 170-member Republican Study Committee. “But right behind that number you’ve got the fiscal hawks who want to control mandatory spending.”
The House and Senate plan to resolve differences between their version of the tax legislation over the next two weeks. Under Ryan’s plan, once that’s wrapped up, Congress would pass another short-term spending bill carrying government funding into January. That must-pass bill could be the vehicle for all the conflicting promises Republican leaders made to their members, as well as the policies that Democrats will demand in exchange for the support a funding resolution will need to get past a filibuster in the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised Maine Republican Susan Collins that in exchange for her vote on the tax overhaul, he would put bipartisan health legislation on a must-pass bill before the end of the year. She said she’s spoken to President Donald Trump three times, as well as to GOP Senate leaders and been given assurances that an Obamacare-fix proposed by Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democrat Patty Murray of Washington will become law by Dec. 31.
“It’s a very clear commitment,” Collins said. “We have a solid commitment from the White House, so I feel confident” it will be pushed though Congress “by the end of the month.”
Including this legislation on a spending bill is a non-starter for many House Republicans. Many of them said Tuesday they would under almost no circumstances vote for a continuing resolution that includes Murray-Alexander.
“There’s not much compromise in there from a House standpoint—none of us voted in favor of Obamacare, so supporting it or sustaining it is not exactly our objective,” said Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who is chairman of an appropriations subcommittee. “I would have a very hard time voting for it. I think our leadership knows that.”
Ryan of Wisconsin previously opposed the Alexander-Murray bill, but on Tuesday said he’s having “continued discussions” with members of both parties.
Leaders also committed to Collins they will push to prevent automatic spending cuts to Medicare and other programs by waiving a budget rule, known as Paygo, which also require Democratic votes.
Other domestic programs, including health insurance for low-income children, could also be included on a must-pass spending bill.
Meanwhile, Democrats, along with some Republicans such as Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida, are also insisting on passing legislation to give legal status for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
House conservatives have their own policy demands to attach to the second continuing resolution of this month. Walker said the Republican Study Committee is pushing a set of proposals to cut as much as $1 trillion from entitlement spending.
Other House members want to make sure that the military doesn’t have to operate under the temporary funding measure. They have proposed attaching a defense appropriations bill as a way of giving the military a larger budget through this fiscal year, which ends in September 2018.
That proposal would need support from Democrats in the Senate to change the law that ties the level of defense spending to the level of non-defense discretionary spending.
“They could probably get that done in the House,” said John Boozman, a Republican senator from Arkansas. “It would be difficult to get done in the Senate.”
The government has been funded under a temporary measure known as a continuing resolution for about three months. Republican leaders are aiming to finish work on all appropriations for federal agencies in the current fiscal year sometime in January.
While House leaders have close to enough support to get through the first continuing resolution—be it to Dec. 22 or Dec. 30—the final stop-gap spending bill of the year will be the target for all the disparate policy priorities of Democrats as well as Republicans. That will test whether conservatives concerned about spending have the political will to bring the government to the brink of a shutdown.