Frustration emerges among GOP spending ‘cardinals’ as conservatives push for cuts

The House Republicans who craft the conference’s government funding bills are showing signs of frustration as hard-line conservatives pressure leadership for further cuts to spending that some worry could be too aggressive.

Some of the 12 Appropriations subcommittee chairs — the so-called cardinals — told reporters that they are struggling to see where those additional cuts could come from, as September's shutdown deadline looms.

“I just don't see the wisdom in trying to further cut to strengthen our hand. I don't know how that strengthens our hand,” Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), a House Appropriations subcommittee chairman, said of conservatives’ push to further cut the already-scaled-back spending bills.

“I do think it puts some of our members in a very difficult spot, particularly those in tough districts, because they're going to be taking some votes that become problematic,” he added.

The House left Washington for a long summer recess Thursday after being forced to punt a bill to fund agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. 

Conservatives are dug in on their demand for steeper spending cuts, to the chagrin of moderates who are wary of slashing funding even more. The chamber has passed just one appropriations bill, funding military construction and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The internal divisions are gripping the party as time is running out: The House has just 12 days in September to move the remaining 11 appropriations measures and hash out their disagreements with the Senate, which is marking up its spending bills at higher levels, setting the scene for a hectic fall that could bring the U.S. to the brink of a shutdown.

Those dynamics are putting GOP appropriators in a bind, leaving them searching for ways to appease conservative requests without gutting their spending bills.

“We’ve done a lot of cuts, a lot of cuts,” House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Kay Granger (R-Texas) told The Hill this week. “And so if it’s cuts just for cut's sake, I don’t agree with it. But if it’s something that we can do without, that’s fine.”

 ‘Not a lot of wiggle room left’

Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas)

Republican appropriators in the House announced earlier this year that they would mark up their bills for fiscal 2024 at fiscal 2022 levels, as leaders sought to placate conservatives who thought the debt ceiling deal struck by President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) earlier this year didn’t do enough to curb spending. 

The Senate is crafting its bills more in line with the budget caps agreed to in the deal, but House Republicans are already fuming about a bipartisan deal in the upper chamber that would allow for more than $13 billion in additional emergency spending on top of those levels.

House GOP negotiators also said they would pursue clawing back more than $100 billion in old funding that was allocated for Democratic priorities without GOP support in the previous Congress. 

While that move drew support from hard-line conservatives, the right flank was far from pleased when it heard appropriators planned to repurpose that old funding — known as rescissions — to plus-up the spending bills.

In a letter to McCarthy earlier this month, a group of hard-line conservatives called for all 12 appropriations bills to be in line with fiscal 2022 spending levels “without the use of reallocated rescissions to increase discretionary spending above that top-line.”

Otherwise, the 21 lawmakers threatened, they would vote against the measures. But that request could prove difficult for GOP appropriators to fulfill.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), chairman of the panel that proposes funding for the Department of State and foreign operations, said that appropriators are already “dramatically reducing spending,” suggesting that there are not too many remaining areas to trim from.

“My bill is below the 2016 levels,” he said, later adding, “When you’re below the 2016 level — and we're still confronting China — I think there's not a lot of wiggle room left.”

“It’s a challenge, but I think we’ll get through it. I really do,” he added. 

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who heads the subcommittee that oversees funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Interior, scoffed at the idea of even steeper cuts to his bill.

“Then you just drop it on the floor and stomp on it. What else do you do with it?” he told reporters. “You can’t make logical cuts in there.”

Republicans appropriators are voicing optimism that the conference will be able to sort out its differences on spending, but some also hope their levels will stick — even though they include rescissions.

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.) — whose panel handles funding for the Department of Energy, which is proposing offsetting billions of dollars in spending with clawbacks — said it would be “extremely difficult” to craft his bill without the rescinded funds.

“And given our priorities in my bill, national defense with the nuclear weapons portfolio, nuclear cleanup, Army Corps including, all the community-directed fundings, I feel good about my bill, and I hope my numbers hold,” he said.

“Because it's gonna have to be in negotiations with the Senate and the White House as well,” he added. 

Womack — whose subcommittee crafts funding for the IRS and the Treasury Department — said he doesn’t think “moving the goalposts on these numbers is helpful in strengthening our ability to negotiate with the Senate.”

August preparations for a busy September

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas)

Frustrations among appropriators are bubbling up as Congress inches closer to the fall, when lawmakers are facing a Sept. 30 deadline to approve funding or risk a government shutdown.

With time running out, some House lawmakers say conversations may continue over the long August recess to try to hash out remaining differences.

“We'll have to see,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said when asked about potential plans for talks between leaders and House Freedom Caucus members over the break. “I mean, we got a lot of work to do.” 

“I think a lot of work [has] got to be done behind the scenes,” he said. “If not, you know, here — You gotta beg the question about whether we should be gone for six weeks. We should be getting our job done.”

Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) echoed that sentiment, saying “I would think so” when asked if lawmakers will have conversations over the break.

Adding to the August workload, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) suggested earlier this week that bicameral negotiations could take place over the weeks-long recess as lawmakers stare down the shutdown deadline.

Not all Republicans, however, are viewing a shutdown as a risk.

During a House Freedom Caucus press conference this week, Good said “we should not fear a government shutdown,” claiming that “most of what we do up here is bad anyway; most of what we do up here hurts the American people.”

But that perspective does not jive with the view of McCarthy, who declared Thursday: “I don’t want the government to shut down.”

Multiple Republicans are ultimately expecting Congress to eventually pass what's known as a continuing resolution (CR), or a measure that temporarily allows the government to be funded at the previous fiscal year’s levels, to prevent a lapse at the end of September. 

But they also understand the task could be difficult in the GOP-led chamber, where Republicans aren’t happy about the idea of continuing funding at the current levels — which were last set when Democrats held control of Congress.

“I think there's a very good chance that we'll see a CR, but I know there's a lot of work to get a CR done,” Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), another appropriator, said Thursday, noting there are “a lot of members that don't want CRs that are tired of them.” 

But Aderholt suggested a CR could notch sufficient GOP backing if there’s a larger plan in sight that the party can support. 

“The Speaker’s been very good about having a plan,” he said, adding, “I think that's what he's good at, and I'm optimistic that he can come up with something.”

Emily Brooks contributed.

House GOP approves first government funding bill amid intense spending fight

House Republicans on Thursday passed their first government funding bill, overcoming an initial hurdle in Speaker Kevin McCarthy's (R-Calif.) attempts to wrangle the GOP conference to approve all 12 appropriations bills amid intense pressure from conservatives to lower spending levels.

The bill — which allocates funding for military construction, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and related agencies — passed in a 219-211 vote. Two Republicans — Reps. Tim Burchett (Tenn.) and Ken Buck (Colo.) — voted with every Democrat against the measure.

The package now heads to the Senate, where it is dead on arrival. Senate appropriators are marking up their spending bills at levels different from the House GOP measures, setting the scene for a chamber vs. chamber showdown in the fall.

Lawmakers have until Sept. 30 to send President Biden legislation to fund the government or risk a shutdown.

In an effort to appease conservatives, House GOP appropriations marked up their spending bills at fiscal 2022 levels, below the caps set in the debt ceiling deal struck by President Biden and McCarthy. The Senate, on the other hand, is considering its appropriations measures at levels in line with the debt limit agreement.

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Republicans have also pursued amendments Democrats have blasted as “poison pills” in the military construction bill and the other 12 annual funding bills, including policies targeting the Biden administration's orders on diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as restricting abortion access.

While Republican leaders saw success Thursday in mustering enough support to pass the Milcon-VA bill, they were also forced to punt consideration of another appropriations bill amid internal divisions over spending and a controversial provision.

The chamber was scheduled to vote on funding legislation for agriculture, rural development and the Food and Drug Administration this week, but party leaders scrapped those plans Thursday afternoon as disagreements continued to plague the measure’s passage.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) announced on the floor Thursday that the final votes this week would be in the afternoon.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., joined at right by Majority Whip Tom Emmer, R-Minn., arrives for a news conference after a meeting of the Republican Conference at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, June 6, 2023. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Conservatives are pushing for steeper funding cuts in the legislation, and moderates are opposed to a provision that would nullify a Biden administration rule allowing the abortion pill mifepristone to be sold in retail pharmacies and by mail with prescriptions from a certified health care provider.

On the Milcon-VA bill, GOP negotiators proposed more than $317 billion in funding, which includes increases for the VA above current levels. The bill also calls for more than $130 billion for veterans’ medical care and a boost for Department of Defense military construction projects.

In a statement earlier this week, the White House said it appreciates the $121 billion in funding that appropriators proposed for VA medical care. The Biden administration said the funding would help support its priorities to end veteran homelessness and expand access to mental health care, among other measures.

But the administration did not hold back its criticism of policies in the bill it said would prevent VA medical centers from being able to perform abortions or “provide hormone therapies for the purpose of gender-affirming care.”

Other measures the White House criticized include sections Democrats say would prevent the VA from displaying LGBTQ pride flags and language that would limit administration efforts to advance equity and diversity. 

Burchett, one of the two Republicans to vote against the Milcon-VA appropriations bill, pointed to the ballooning debt in the U.S. in explaining his opposition to the legislation.

“Love the veterans: daddy fought for his country, my momma lost a brother fighting the Nazis, dad fought the Japanese, my momma flew an airplane during the Second World War, but we are $32 trillion in debt,” he said.

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Republicans are expected to ramp up efforts to pass the remaining funding bills when they return from recess in September. But the House faces a serious time crunch, with the chamber scheduled to have just 12 legislative days on the calendar before a shutdown deadline at the end of September. 

Scalise suggested Tuesday that bicameral negotiations could take place over the long August recess, but negotiators haven’t signaled any bipartisan talks are scheduled to happen before lawmakers are set to come back.

Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said on Tuesday that the Four Corners — the top leaders of both chambers’ respective appropriations committees — haven’t recently had formal talks, but her “goal is to have conferences.”

She told reporters she’s hopeful the Senate will begin bringing its appropriations bills to the floor “at the very first week in September.”

“I believe we should do everything to avoid a shutdown,” she said.

Updated at 6:42 p.m.

McCarthy shifts, voices new confidence in debt ceiling deal

Bipartisan negotiators racing to secure a debt ceiling deal voiced new confidence on Thursday that they'll locate a compromise before a federal default.

But even as President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) both hinted at significant progress in the talks, rank-and-file lawmakers in both parties are raising alarms about the concessions their leaders have made — pushback that's highlighted the hurdles certain to face leadership as they prepare to sell an emerging agreement to their respective troops.

“We're not there. We haven't agreed to anything yet. But I see the path that we could come through,” McCarthy told reporters on Thursday morning, while also saying “it'd be important to try to have the agreement, especially in principle, by sometime this weekend.”

It’s an ambitious timeline for negotiations that began in earnest only nine days ago. And to be successful, party leaders will have to navigate the various pressures from rank-and-file lawmakers in both parties. 

For McCarthy, that means assuring leery conservatives that he’s not straying too far from the legislative package that passed through the House late last month, which combined a debt limit increase with steep cuts in federal spending. 

“You can’t continue to spend and spend and spend without constraints. That’s completely irresponsible. And we’re just not going to do that,” Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.) said.

Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.)

Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.) speaks during an enrollment ceremony for the Revised Criminal Code Act in the Capitol on Friday, March 10, 2023. (Annabelle Gordon)

If Biden won’t accept the level of cuts passed by the House, he added, then McCarthy should demand tougher border security measures as part of the package. 

The Freedom Caucus complicated McCarthy’s task further on Thursday, urging the Speaker to step away from the negotiating table and demand that Democrats accept the House-passed bill. 

"There should be no further discussion until the Senate passes the legislation,” the group said in a statement.

Biden is facing his own headaches from the left.

More on the debt ceiling from The Hill:

For the past few days, liberals in both chambers have come out in strong opposition to GOP-backed proposals for tougher work requirements for federal assistance programs — a position amplified this week by House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who has sided squarely with his progressive members. 

“We have continued to make clear, as House Democrats, that so-called extreme work requirements that these MAGA Republicans want to try to impose as a ransom note are a nonstarter,” Jeffries told reporters in the Capitol. “Period. Full stop.”

While Biden has seemingly ruled out changes to Medicaid in negotiations with McCarthy, he sparked confusion and, in some cases, frustration in his party when he appeared to open the door for stricter work requirements for other programs, like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Republicans have sought to toughen the work requirements for all three of those programs — provisions featured in their debt limit legislation.

“What I've said in the past is, I understand he voted for work requirements in 1996 and some other things in ‘86 with the crime bill, but we didn't elect the Joe Biden of 1986 and 1996, we elected the Joe Biden of 2020,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters on Thursday. 

“They hurt the very people that they're designed to serve. And to put them on something like SNAP at a time when hunger is now reaching pandemic levels in the country is something that is not a core Democratic value,” Jayapal said, describing the push as a “non-starter.”

The comments echo the sentiment of other Democrats in both chambers worried about the concessions the White House could wind up making as part of the bipartisan talks, underlining the potential uproar in store for the president if his party is unsatisfied with the final deal. 

"The president tends to float a lot of things, sometimes spontaneously,” said Rep. Chuy Garcia (D-Ill.). “But I can tell you the work-requirements piece is a nonstarter with a vast majority of the Progressive Caucus, and that's the largest caucus” among House Democrats. 

“So it's quite problematic." 

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.)

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) returns to the House Chamber on the second day of the 118th session of Congress on Wednesday, January 4, 2023. (Greg Nash)

While McCarthy has continued to insist on the work requirement changes, he and others in the party have refrained from publicly drawing further red lines, as tensions on both sides escalate ahead of the looming default deadline, which the Treasury Department has warned could arrive as soon as June 1.

But that doesn’t mean some Republicans aren’t sending warning signals.

“I’m gonna still vote against it because I’m against raising the debt ceiling,” said Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), one of the four Republicans to oppose the Republicans’ bill last month. “And I guarantee you you’ll pick up more people [in opposition], because other people have gotten hammered on their vote.”

Another sticking point between the parties is the question of how long the government’s borrowing authority should be extended. 

The Republicans’ bill would have hiked the debt ceiling through next March, at the latest, meaning Congress would have to revisit the issue again before the 2024 elections. Biden and Democrats have rejected that timeline, demanding a longer window to get beyond those elections. 

“I don't see any way that we kick the can down the road for anything less than two years,” Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said this week.  

Spending levels are another major point of contention. 

The Republicans’ bill would have reduced deficit spending by roughly $4.8 trillion over the next decade, capping spending at fiscal year 2022 levels next year and limiting growth to 1 percent in the years following. And conservatives are warning that anything less must be met in kind from Democrats. 

“We've got $1.5 trillion for a year versus 4.8 trillion in cuts,” Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), head of the Republican Study Committee, told reporters Thursday. “So, it's gonna get real difficult as [there’s] less and less spending cuts. I can't imagine that the body would be in unity for $1 for dollar.”

Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.)

Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.) speaks during a press conference to discuss The Lower Energy Costs Act on Tuesday, March 28, 2023. (Annabelle Gordon)

The challenge facing McCarthy and his leadership team is to find a compromise that can win the support of Biden and congressional Democrats without alienating conservatives in his own conference, who have distrusted his conservative bonafides in the past.

Earlier this week, McCarthy tapped Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), a close ally, to spearhead the talks with Biden administration officials, and some Republicans see him as the key to finding that balance. 

“That's why the Speaker has put him forward,” Hern told The Hill. “As these sort of suggestions, demands, requirements … — it’s their job to go out and sort of float a balloon to see how those are going to work.”

On the other side, the White House has tapped known dealmakers Shalanda Young, head of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and Steve Ricchetti, a top Biden adviser, as well as legislative affairs chief Louisa Terrell to work toward a compromise.

Discussing a potential timeline to clinch a deal on Thursday, McCarthy voiced optimism that negotiators “have a structure now” and have people “working two or three times a day, then going back, getting more numbers.”

McCarthy also lauded Biden's picks to lead the talks – a move by the White House seen as a significant step given the officials' extensive experience working with congressional members on both sides.

“I have the greatest respect for Shalanda and Ricchetti. I mean they are exceptionally smart,” McCarthy said. “They are strong in their beliefs on the Democratic side just as who we have in the room.”

Mychael Schnell contributed.

Jittery Democrats worried about Biden debt ceiling concessions

Liberals are growing increasingly jittery about what concessions President Biden may make in debt ceiling negotiations with Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

While the party has been largely unified behind the White House’s strategy in the talks, more Democrats are voicing worries about what could be on the chopping block in order to keep the nation from defaulting on its debt. 

“I'm concerned because the president has, every now and then, moved to the right, if you will, to acquiesce to a so-called independent voter, and the American people want us to be bold and to stand firm,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) told reporters on Tuesday. “And to make sure we're following through on our promises.”

His comments add to a growing chorus of Democrats who are showing uneasiness in recent days about where the bipartisan talks over the nation’s borrowing limit could be headed.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.)

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) leaves the House Chamber on Thursday, April 20, 2023 following the last votes of the week. (Greg Nash)

Biden spooked many in his base over the weekend when he appeared to open the door to stricter work requirements for certain federal assistance programs.

Pressed by reporters on whether he was open to the idea as part of bipartisan debt limit discussions, Biden acknowledged voting for “tougher aid programs that’s in the law now,” but said “for Medicaid, it's a different story.”

“And so I’m waiting to hear what their exact proposal is,” Biden added. 

The White House spent Monday seemingly trying to walk back the remarks. But his comments have left some Democrats worried about where GOP-backed proposals to beef up work requirements for other programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as the food stamps program, fit in ongoing negotiations. 

McCarthy on Tuesday said including work requirements in the debt ceiling bill was a "red line" for him, while House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries called including them a "non-starter."

“I'm deeply concerned about it and we're just going to have to see. Hopefully, they're not going to get to that point,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said of the talks when asked by reporters about whether changes to work requirements were a nonstarter.

“I remain very concerned about anything that hurts people that get a small amount of food assistance,” Stabenow, the No. 3 Senate Democrat, also said.

And Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) in a statement Tuesday echoed the concern.

“No one I’ve ever met wants to stay on SNAP for life. They need it to make ends meet. I sure didn’t come to Washington to take vital assistance away from working people at the same time big bank CEOs nearly crash the economy and get to jet off to Hawaii scot-free. I cannot in good conscience support a debt ceiling proposal that pushes people into poverty,” he said.

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.)

Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) arrives to the Capitol for a series of votes on Tuesday, May 2, 2023. (Annabelle Gordon)

Asked Tuesday about the criticism that Biden may be giving away too many concessions, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said negotiations have been “as we see it, very productive.”

“This is a president who has been around the block a few times. He knows how to make deals. He knows how this works. And there’s no one more experienced in knowing how to get this done,” she added.

For months, the White House refused to negotiate over raising the debt ceiling. And Democrats showed a united front behind the president in rejecting calls by House Republicans to come to the bargaining table.

But as Congress stares down a potentially chaotic two-week stretch until June 1 — the earliest the Treasury Department warns the country risks a federal default — both sides are feeling the pressure to quickly strike a deal. 

More coverage of the debt ceiling from The Hill:

Democrats have panned a Republican bill passed by the House last month that would raise the debt ceiling — but not without a host of partisan spending cuts, ranging from measures to roll back parts of Biden’s signature economic bill that passed last year, changes to work requirements and putting a stop to the administration’s popular student loan decisions.

However, since talks began between the White House and House GOP leadership last week, there has been more chatter on Capitol Hill around more areas of potential compromise outlined in the House Republican bill, including proposals aimed at limiting government funding hashed out by lawmakers as part of the annual appropriations process over the next decade.

The House-passed bill would cap discretionary funding at fiscal 2022 levels, limiting annual spending growth at one percent annually — a proposal that has drawn swift opposition from top Democrats who say the measure could mean steep cuts for domestic programs.

Yet, in recent days, reports have surfaced that negotiators are considering a two-year deal that would involve proposals aimed at limiting spending while also raising the debt limit – which could be a tough lift in the divided Congress.  

While Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) signaled openness to The Hill last week to yanking back already approved coronavirus funding that Republicans say is not yet obligated, the key moderate voiced caution about potential caps. 

“I mean, there are some I think there's some low hanging fruit that we can look at,” said Cuellar, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “But start going into budget caps or all that, as an appropriator, I’m going to look at that very, carefully.”

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas)

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) is seen during the first day of the 118th session of Congress on Tuesday, January 3, 2023. (Greg Nash)

After his meeting with Biden on Tuesday, McCarthy signaled both sides had a ways to go in talks before striking a deal, telling reporters: “If this was where we were in February, I’d be very optimistic.”

“So, the structure of how we negotiate has improved. So it now gives you a better opportunity, even though we only have a few days to get it done,” McCarthy said. 

But the stakes are high as more experts warn of the potentially catastrophic consequences a default could hold for the economy.

Secretary Janet Yellen said in a speech on Tuesday that Americans are already seeing the “impacts of brinksmanship,” noting the changes seen in the bonds market in recent weeks.

“Investors have become more reluctant to hold government debt that matures in early June,” Yellen said at Independent Community Bankers of America 2023 Capital Summit. “And the impasse has already increased the debt burden to American taxpayers – as the leaders of the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee said last week.”

But there are worries among Democrats that extend beyond the threat of a default.

“Republicans want to cut across the board programs for children, the elderly … the sick, the poor. Unacceptable. Period,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told reporters. 

He also punted a question about his trust in the White House’s strategy amid talks, instead saying they'll "find out more" after Tuesday's meeting.