Congress lurched closer to a government shutdown Thursday after Senate conservatives demanded changes to a noncontroversial spending package that had strong bipartisan support, bringing the bill to a screeching halt.
The conflict over the Senate spending bill revealed the divisions between the Republican leadership and restive conservatives intent on forcing spending cuts and other reforms through Congress, even if it risks a government shutdown.
The unexpected breakdown also came a day after divisions within the House GOP conference forced Republican leaders in the lower chamber to postpone a vote to begin debate on the annual defense appropriations bill.
House conservatives are refusing to move forward until Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) agrees to their demands to drive a hard line with Democrats in the year-end spending talks.
Senate and House conservatives are ratcheting up the intensity of their tactics fewer than three weeks before government funding expires on Sept. 30.
Their goal is to maximize their political leverage with Democrats and leaders of their own party and minimize the chances they get steamrolled on a continuing resolution to keep government funded or other spending bills that need to pass by year’s end.
Conservative rebels don’t want a replay of what happened earlier this year when bipartisan majorities in the Senate and House passed legislation to raise the debt ceiling by some $1.5 trillion along with fiscal reforms that many conservatives viewed as toothless or inadequate.
The Senate’s spending bills had gathered strong political momentum after passing out of the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier this year with large bipartisan majorities.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday had praised the Senate’s work as “the gold standard for good governance” and drew a pointed contrast between the bipartisanship on the Senate side and the chaos in the House.
But, instead, Senate conservatives took a page from the House conservatives’ playbook and derailed the first appropriations package that came to the Senate floor: legislation to fund military construction and the departments of Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) refused to grant consent to begin voting on amendments, demanding the legislation be broken up into three separate bills, even though doing so would likely drag out the process for passing them through the Senate by weeks.
That demand prompted exasperated reactions from Schumer and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the vice chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, who vented their displeasure and warned of a potential government shutdown.
“Members cannot have it both ways. They cannot block floor consideration of appropriations bills that were unanimously reported by the committee and yet maintain they don’t want an omnibus bill. It’s one or the other — or a government shutdown, even worse,” Collins warned on the Senate floor.
A visibly frustrated Schumer accused Senate conservatives of “trying to mimic” the House Freedom Caucus by holding up the spending package, despite the strong support it enjoys from colleagues.
“MAGA Republicanism seems to be taking over the Republican Party. You have the House in such disarray that they can’t even pass a defense appropriations bill, something that used to be their bread and butter,” Schumer said.
“And now all of a sudden you have a group, a small group in the Senate, trying to mimic Freedom Caucus in the House and holding up the defense bill, which had huge bipartisan support,” he said. “Republican leaders have to reject this MAGA Republicanism for the good of the country and for the good of their party.”
At the same time, conservatives in the House are hardening their demands for steep spending cuts and major policy changes related to border security, the Justice Department and the Pentagon.
They are refusing to even open consideration of any spending bill — even a less controversial one like defense — unless they see the top-line figures for the full slate of appropriations bills.
And they are threatening to force McCarthy out of the Speaker’s job unless he insists on lowering the top-line discretionary spending level for fiscal 2024 by more than $100 billion below the spending cap he agreed to with President Biden earlier this year as part of the debt limit deal.
McCarthy confronted his critics during a tense closed-door House GOP conference meeting Thursday.
“If somebody wants to file a motion to vacate, file the f—ing motion to vacate, and that’s it. And stop holding up everybody’s work,” McCarthy said, according to Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.).
On Thursday, news emerged that House Republicans were working on a package for a stopgap funding bill that also included border security measures and spending cuts. Such a package would likely earn no support from Democrats and set up a clash with the Senate — though it could set the stage for negotiations.
Johnson said that he wants the Senate to slow down and pass the military construction and Veterans Affairs spending bill separately from the bills funding the departments of Agriculture, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development.
“We need to return some function to this place … A pretty simple objection. Let’s just proceed to this one bill. What’s wrong with that?” he said.
“Just go onto military construction, [Veterans Affairs]. Let’s proceed to that and pass it, then wait for the House to send us other bills. Makes a lot of sense,” he said.
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said Senate conservatives want to see the appropriations packages scheduled for the floor “broken up.”
“Generally, any of us that are fiscal conservatives are wanting to get the whole process back to something closer to what it was 20 years ago,” he said.
Aides say Johnson has thrown up a major obstacle to the combined Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development bill by invoking Senate Rule XVI, which prohibits legislating on appropriations bills.
Johnson’s argument is that since the base bill is the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs appropriations bill, it is a violation of Senate rules to amend it by adding the other appropriations bills. Because he is invoking a standing Senate rule, Schumer would not be able to override his objection simply by filing cloture, Senate aides say.
Instead, Schumer would have to muster 67 votes — two-thirds of the Senate — to suspend the standing rule to set aside the procedural objection.
Collins argued on the Senate floor that by holding up the smaller appropriations packages, Johnson and other Senate conservatives are increasing the chances that lawmakers will have to pile them into a massive omnibus package at the end of the year.
“The Senator from Wisconsin has repeatedly said, and I agree with him, that we should not end up with an omnibus bill, a 4,000-page bill at the end of the year,” she said. “So why is the senator from Wisconsin objecting to proceeding to three appropriations bills that were reported unanimously … by the Senate Appropriations Committee after a great deal of work?”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a Collins ally and member of the Appropriations Committee, called Johnson’s objection to the Senate spending package “unfortunate.”
She warned that lawmakers need to package some of the bills together to get them passed before the end of the year, given the dwindling number of days on the legislative calendar.
“I think we need to get moving, and [a] minibus is the way to do it,” she said.
Johnson’s blockade, however, drew applause from hard-line House conservatives.
Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) described the development as “probably a good thing,” while noting he spoke with Johnson the day before.
“I mean, we have conversations regularly with our colleagues on the other side of the building,” he told The Hill. “And I saw Ron last night, but I wasn’t aware of that specifically.”
“But I know [Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah)] and Ron and others are, you know, working to try to make sure that we’re not getting jammed with something out of the Senate like we did through the stupid omnibus last December,” Roy said.
Some appropriators warn the GOP risks losing leverage in negotiations with Senate Democrats later this month to avert a shutdown.
“We would have had some leverage had we been able to pass some bills, but others have different ideas,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), an appropriator, told reporters earlier this week, adding: “If you can’t pass defense, you can’t pass any of it.”
“But that’s kind of the mentality that’s been created here is that, if you get Democratic votes on something, then it must be bad,” Simpson said.
Al Weaver and Emily Brooks contributed.