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House GOP zeroing in on two-step stopgap bill or January continuing resolution

Left to right, U.S. House Majority Whip Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN), Speaker of the House Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA), House Republican Conference Chair Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) and House Majority Leader Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) leave after a news briefing at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 2, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS)  (Alex Wong/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Aidan Quigley and David Lerman CQ-Roll Call

WASHINGTON — House Republicans are aiming to reach a consensus this week on a stopgap funding measure that would get a vote next week before the current continuing resolution runs out on Nov. 17.

During a Monday night leadership meeting, Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., floated a “laddered CR” that would extend funding for four bills through Dec. 7 and the rest through Jan. 19. Johnson said Tuesday after meeting with the GOP conference that a stopgap bill running into January “with certain stipulations” is also on the table.

The new speaker said he would be revealing his spending plan “in short order” but did not share any details Tuesday morning after House Republicans met to discuss the options. However, Senate Democrats are pushing for a stopgap measure into early December, with Dec. 8 as the preferred end date, according to sources familiar with the consideration.

Staffers for the top appropriators in each chamber met Monday night, sources said. Republicans leaving the meeting made clear that the Defense spending bill will be Republicans’ priority if the party pursues the laddered approach.

“It achieves what we need to do, which is urge the Senate to actually take further action on the bills that it’s passed, as well as Defense,” Agriculture Appropriations Chairman Andy Harris, R-Md., said. “I do think there’s no excuse for the Senate not to take up Defense appropriations or to at least go to conference with the House on our Defense appropriations bill.”

Harris’ comments suggest the Senate should be willing to go to conference on the first batch of bills that chamber passed as part of a “minibus” last week: Military Construction-VA, Transportation-HUD as well as Agriculture.

The House-passed “milcon” bill is the Senate’s minibus vehicle, and House Republicans are aiming to pass its Transportation-HUD bill as soon as Tuesday. Harris said his Agriculture bill likely won’t come back to the floor in that chamber, however, after it was defeated in September and now time is too short.

Other Republicans signaled that Defense funding should be a priority in a laddered approach.

“I think, certainly, as we’ve been saying all along, we need to get Department of Defense passed for sure,” said Republican Study Committee Chairman Kevin Hern, R-Okla. “We need to send a message around the world that we have a secure military.”

Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., said he is intrigued by the bifurcated approach, although he’s not sure whether Senate Democrats would be on board with taking up Defense appropriations without the Labor-HHS-Education measure, the largest of the nondefense bills. Historically, Democrats have liked to keep those bills tied together to ensure GOP support for the latter.

‘Listening mode’

Johnson was in “listening mode” during Tuesday’s meeting, Rules Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., said after the meeting.

“I trust him and his leadership team now to go off, they’ve had a good input, they’ll come back with a strategy and I’ll support that strategy,” Cole said.

Both the laddered approach and the straight January CR idea have some support in the conference, Armstrong said.

Harris, who proposed the laddered approach, pointed out that it has happened before — in 1991. Congress enacted a stopgap measure that extended one spending bill, the Foreign Operations bill, to March 31, 1992, while extending the others one month to Nov. 14 because of a conflict over funding for Israel.

However, the concept is controversial within the House GOP conference, as some fear that the approach would set up a series of shutdown threats and never-ending appropriations battles.

State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., said while he may change his mind after seeing details of the plan, he worries it would increase the House’s chances of getting jammed by the Senate.

“It’s potentially a little bit riskier,” Diaz-Balart said. “It potentially weakens our hand to do it twice as opposed to have the topline number, have a date certain, let us negotiate the bills and then we’re done.”

Many House Republicans have said they want to avoid a Christmastime omnibus from the Senate.

Even in the laddered scenario, having some funding expire in December would not be a “viable option,” Rep. Andy Ogles, R-Tenn., said.

“We’ve got to get through the holidays,” said Ogles, a member of the Freedom Caucus. “And again, you just look at historically what happens if you don’t, you get an omni. That’s $2 trillion the American people can’t afford from the Senate.”

Hern and Ogles said they were among those arguing any CR shouldn’t be “clean,” that it should include conservative policy wins. Ogles said that could include border security measures or a commission to tackle long-term U.S. debt problems.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be a ladder, but there’s got to be something that takes you beyond Christmas,” Ogles said. “And there has to be something that you can take back home like border security, like that [debt] commission, that you can say, ‘Hey, we’re serious about fixing the problems of America.’”

This is setting the chamber up on a collision course with Senate Democrats, who want to wrap up the process before the start of the new year.

“We’re already almost a month into the current fiscal year,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who chairs the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee, said last week. “We should be able to get our house in order and pass a budget for the year we’re in before more than three months have passed.”

But wrapping up full-year appropriations by December would be a heavy lift for a House and Senate that have been on a collision course over spending levels for months.

That time crunch has led to some discussion of the Senate taking up its remaining nine bills in a single package. “It’s not my preference, but we may end up that way,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the chamber’s top Republican appropriator.

It’s not clear how much support a nine-bill package would have, particularly among conservatives who have pushed to return to “regular order” by taking up bills individually.

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., another appropriator, said he was “dubious” of the idea, which he called “only marginally better than a poke in the eye.”

Supplemental divide

Another point of contention is the $106 billion in supplemental funding that President Joe Biden has requested for foreign military and economic assistance as well as border management and security, along with another $56 billion he is seeking for domestic purposes like child care and broadband subsidies and disaster relief.

While House Republicans passed a $14.3 billion military aid package for Israel last week, that bill includes clawbacks in IRS funding that Democrats do not support. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has said the Senate will not take it up.

Johnson on Tuesday did not rule out including Israel funding in a stopgap bill Tuesday.

“I’m not going to tell you what the CR will entail yet, but I will tell you that we are urging consistently and very appropriately to get Israel done,” he said. “It’s an urgent necessity.”

Senate Republican leaders prefer to add Biden’s Ukraine funding request to the mix as well, but some GOP senators are demanding tough U.S. border restrictions in exchange. In floor remarks, Schumer blasted the Senate GOP proposal as a “total nonstarter” but added that bipartisan negotiations were possible.

“I want to be clear, I’d like to bridge the divide and see commonsense border policies done, and the president would like to get something done, as his supplemental proposal shows,” Schumer said.

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., said he has begun talks with some Republicans and independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona in an attempt to find a bipartisan compromise on border policies that could be part of a supplemental bill with Ukraine funding. But he stressed that any bipartisan approach on immigration would not be as sweeping as many Republicans want to see.

“We can’t build an entire automobile between now and when we need to pass the supplemental,” Murphy said. “We can make some common-sense changes to make things better on the border. We can’t do a top-to-bottom rewrite of asylum laws, border barrier law, parole law and detainment law.”

Cole said he prefers a clean extension of government spending, setting up future negotiations with the Senate on fiscal 2024 appropriations and the supplemental funding requests Biden has put forward.

“I also say you don’t link any of the supplemental expenditures like Israel or Ukraine or disaster relief, you just keep the government funded, sit down and negotiate,” he said.