As House negotiators neared a six-month spending agreement tonight, they set up late-week votes that could be the strongest political litmus test yet for a freshman-heavy conservative Conference entering its first re-election challenge.
The House Appropriations Committee finalized language for a half-year continuing resolution and introduced the bill this evening.
And while lawmakers and aides expressed confidence they will clear the stopgap bill and avert a pre-election shutdown, just who votes in favor of it - especially among tea-party-influenced Members - could be a sign of just how much this new class of lawmakers has learned from nearly two years of brinksmanship.
The defining narrative of this Congress has been deficit reduction, pushed mostly by an anti-government-spending class of 87 freshman House Republicans. But as November inches closer, Members will have to balance their promises to slash spending against the reality that a shutdown could be an irreversible gamble in their bid to win back the Senate and White House. For his part, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) seems optimistic, having recently said the group has "matured."
"If you ask any of the guys who were the hot spots in previous CR fights - say what you will, everybody fought really hard to get here - they can pretend that they want to shut the government down, but when you're facing your own re-election in the face - not just broadly Mitt Romney versus Barack Obama, but your own re-election - it's hard to see the political benefits of shutting the government down," one House Republican aide said.
Sources close to both the House and Senate appropriations process said today that the plan was for the House to move forward with as clean of a six-month continuing resolution as possible. House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) had pushed Boehner before the August recess to agree to a stopgap bill at the $1.047 trillion spending target for the fiscal year set by last summer's Budget Control Act. Though the full appropriations process broke down earlier this year when House Republicans, led by House Budget Chairman and vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), tried to cut spending beyond the already agreed upon levels, Rogers blamed the Senate in a statement released tonight.
"My committee members worked relentlessly to produce legislation that adequately and responsibly funds the federal government, and did so in a timely manner. Unfortunately, with the Senate's inaction and election-year politics in play, ... a temporary funding Band-Aid is necessary to prevent a government shutdown," he said.
But the agreement to set the level higher than conservatives wanted provides insurance that the bill will actually pass the House, because Democrats are set to support it.
"CRs are bipartisan bills," House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters today. "I expect that bill to be a bipartisan bill, and I expect the Senate to pass it as well."
McCarthy said he expects the House to approve the measure Thursday and for Ryan to also support it, despite the deal calling for higher spending than the Budget chairman's blueprint.
But whether the conservative House Members will actually fall in line this week is still in doubt. Sources indicated votes in favor for the spending measure would demonstrate the increased political savvy Boehner has been touting. "No" votes might indicate a tough road ahead for the expected lame-duck battles tea party stalwarts have told conservatives to gird up for.
The legislation filed by the House Appropriations Committee also includes several anomalies, or spending extras, requested by the Office of Management and Budget. The final agreement contains $6.4 billion in disaster aid funding and $88.5 billion for the Defense Department's war-related expenses, both of which were requested by the Obama administration.
Controversial policy riders - such as on family planning, which have nearly sunk previous spending efforts - were not included in the deal forged this week.
Rogers' instructions called for a bill that was "as streamlined as possible," according to one aide, and the legislation, despite the extras, likely will amount to spending less than in the last fiscal year. Much of the savings will come from war drawdowns, such as in Afghanistan where 30,000 surge troops are slated to come home by the end of September. The overseas contingency funds were capped at President Barack Obama's request for the fiscal year, which is approximately $40 billion less than in fiscal 2012.
Because of the clear lines drawn on what will and won't be in the spending packages, and the certainty of Democratic support, House Republican sources are watching this week's votes with particular interest. Tea party leaders, such as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), pushed for a swift CR agreement before recess, enabling Boehner to strike a quiet deal with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the White House. DeMint called on his conservative colleagues to hold their fire on the temporary spending bill and save it for the larger spending battles, either in this fall's lame-duck session or at the start of a new Congress. Key post-election concerns for conservatives will be replacing the $1.2 trillion sequester and renewing the massive tax breaks enacted by President George W. Bush and extended in 2010 by Obama.
And even if the spending bill is completed swiftly, lawmakers still have to grapple with an emergency drought aid package - which sources said would not be included in the CR deal. The farm bill is likely the last hurdle left before Congress goes on a semi-permanent break for the campaign and could pit Members' conservative interests against their parochial ones, with more than 80 percent of the country suffering from drought at one point this summer.
Farm programs are set to expire at the end of the month, and across the Dome, Senate Democratic leaders are relying on Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) to chart a path forward and avoid an abrupt cutoff of federal farm aid. Though she will continue to press for a five-year authorization bill, aides said she might settle for an extension of current law to avoid disruption in key farm programs.
Humberto Sanchez and Daniel Newhauser contributed to this report.