McCarthy confronts a spending mess that will test his speakership

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Kevin McCarthy’s survival as speaker may depend on whether he pulls off a difficult summertime task: bridging the huge gap between his ultraconservatives and GOP centrists on government funding.

So far, his efforts are falling short.

The California Republican has to clear a dozen spending bills, altogether worth over $1 trillion, with near-total unanimity in the GOP — votes that even his allies say he doesn’t have right now. Then he’ll have to shift gears and cut another deal with the White House without triggering the first real attempt by the House GOP’s right flank to strip him of the speakership.

McCarthy has embraced conservative demands in recent weeks, with appropriators setting spending levels below those he arranged with President Joe Biden. But despite major concessions from leadership, hardliners have already warned they aren't sold on the funding bills.

On the other side, McCarthy allies are doubtful that those conservatives will ever support a final spending deal that requires Biden’s and Senate Democrats’ support. Some centrists are growing tired of ultimatums from members they don’t see as team players.

“We've got to figure out how we get 218 votes out of a pile of 222 Republicans. And that means we have to operate in a different fashion,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior spending leader, summing up the challenge of packing bills with GOP goodies that may ultimately be stripped out.

At the center of it all is Congress’ premiere parlor game: testing McCarthy's hold on his gavel. If the House GOP can’t complete their ambitious lineup of spending bills, it will mark a failure of one of McCarthy’s biggest promises during the speaker’s race. And several Republicans are privately worried that they’re inevitably headed toward a high-drama government shutdown after the funding deadline Sept. 30.

“My concern is ... we’re not there as a conference yet,” said Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), who leads the conservative Republican Study Committee.

Hern said he raised that exact point — the shortage of GOP votes to pass most of its own spending bills — during a recent meeting between McCarthy and the other representatives of House Republican factions, including the Freedom Caucus and moderates.

He’s not the only one. Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), a member of the former group, recalled telling party leadership during a separate meeting that they would have a “very difficult time” getting enough GOP votes for spending bills under leadership’s current plan. That approach includes counting $115 billion in spending clawbacks as cuts to overall spending, despite conservative demands to consider that money separately from efforts to chop funding.

“There is the spending level, which we need to reduce. And then there are policy riders to get Republican priorities in place in the funding of this government,” said Good, who described the GOP’s fiscal austerity push as “a very modest $130 billion cut.”

GOP leadership has homed its pitch to its rebel group — noting that many of its 12 funding bills will fall well below fiscal 2022 levels while boosting party priorities like veterans and defense spending. And top Republicans have added red-meat provisions, too, like leaving out funds for the FBI’s hunt for a headquarters, limiting the availability of mail-order abortion drugs and banning funds to “promote or advance critical race theory.”

That has hardly kiboshed the warning signs from the conference’s most conservative members. Good is one of 11 Republicans who shut down the House floor in the wake of the debt deal and are already putting that hardball strategy on the table again, calling on leadership and the rest of the conference to bend further in their direction on spending.

Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), another of the 11, replied succinctly when asked whether ultraconservatives could grind the floor to a halt again by rejecting rules for GOP priorities: “Sure could."

But Burchett credited McCarthy with understanding “how serious folks are” and bringing together the various contingents within the party, quipping: “We got more groups than the Baptist church.”

Still, those tactics have only fueled frustration in other corners of the conference. Some of the GOP’s more center-right members are already warning that loading up their spending bills with conservative policies considered anathematic to Democrats misses the bigger picture. Those centrists argue that the same right flank party leaders are currently trying to pacify is unlikely to support whatever the final deal is with the White House.

“I think we’re missing the obvious — at some point, you’ve got to make a deal with the Senate and the president, and we’ll be back to the debt-ceiling limit numbers. And then some guys on the right will be all mad. But that is how the system of government works,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said.

Similar sentiment is coming from many of the Republicans tasked with shaping the government funding bills.

Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) predicted that any final government funding deal will “look a lot different” than the House GOP bills, resulting in Republicans losing “a lot of votes on our side, because it is just not going to be enough.”

“I do think that sometimes we get caught up in our own echo chamber and we fail to recognize that we’re just one part of the discussion piece,” he added.

The spending push comes back to a critical McCarthy pledge during his speaker’s race. The now-speaker vowed to take a back-to-the-basics approach to government funding bills this time around, avoiding a trillion-dollar catch-all measure that his predecessor once called “a crap sandwich.”

Most Republicans say it’s unlikely that the spending debacle will be entirely solved by the funding deadline Sept. 30. Instead, many believe Congress will probably wind up with its usual post-Christmas deadline. Few are ruling out a September showdown entirely, however, since both parties would need to agree on a short-term extension until Jan. 1 — when the debt deal could trigger some small automatic cuts.

“You have kind of a three-month no-man's land,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) about the period between the end of September and start of January. “I assume if there is no deal or agreement or approps aren’t passed, … then on Oct. 1, you either have a short-term [continuing resolution] or you don’t have funding.”

In the meantime, to help get members on one page, McCarthy and his allies have also kicked off something of an educational campaign, in which GOP appropriators can show where virtually every dollar is spent in their bills — and why fellow Republicans should support it.

“You want a secure border, you got to agree about the things it’s going to take,” Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio) said of his outreach to members about what’s in his Department of Homeland Security funding bill. That measure includes more money than in past years to fund priorities like added immigrant detention beds.

“That’s why it’s more important to educate everybody in the process and how it works,” Joyce added. “It’s not like us just making stuff up, or just in collusion with the Senate.”

Jennifer Scholtes contributed to this report.

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