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Republicans Looking for a Way to 'Yes'

Ryan has been reaching out to all corners of his conference on the omnibus package. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Republicans have traditionally voted in large numbers against year-end spending bills, relying heavily on Democratic votes to avoid shutdowns. But this year, more GOP members are trying to get to "yes" on the bills.  

“I don’t think we want to overreach; we’d like to figure out something that’s doable,” Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., said when asked what would earn his vote and the votes of his fellow House Freedom Caucus members for the year-end omnibus spending bill. The continuing resolution now funding the government expires on Dec. 11, and members have been negotiating a longer-term spending bill they can pass before leaving for the holidays. Navigating the host of contentious issues that could come up in relation to the omnibus without fracturing the party will not be easy, and Speaker Paul D. Ryan knows that.  

Since Republicans captured the House majority in 2010, leadership has relied heavily on Democratic votes to pass major spending bills.  

When Ryan was sworn in a little over a month ago, he said it would be a priority to pass legislation with a majority of the majority of Republicans, the so-called Hastert Rule named for ex-Speaker J. Dennis Hastert. But as recently as Tuesday, Ryan would not commit to passing the year-end spending measure with a majority of the GOP.  

“We’ll see how the process goes,” he said.  

Others involved in the negotiations were more optimistic  

“I think we’ll have a majority” of Republicans, House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers said. Reminded that has not been the case historically, the Kentucky Republican said, “We’ve got a new speaker.”  

Negotiations are at a key juncture. Rogers said his goal is to present a final omnibus bill by Dec. 7, which would give lawmakers in both chambers the week to avoid a government shutdown. Democrats have balked at Republicans’ opening offer, presented to them late Tuesday, and are working on a counter. Republicans will meet Thursday morning to discuss where things stand.  

Rogers said he did not yet have assurances from conservatives but he expressed confidence the GOP would get enough wins on policy riders to appease the party’s right flank.  

Conservatives are saying the 167 members of their conference that voted against the budget deal, which every Democrat supported, offered a preview of the number of votes GOP leaders could lose if they cut a bad deal on the omnibus.  

“Their live-in number is not going up, but it could go down,” Freedom Caucus member Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said. “We are doing some smart negotiating by saying, ‘Hey, take some off the number if you don’t want the riders.’”  

Salmon said Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, kicked off the group’s weekly meeting Monday by saying he would like to come up with language that will get them to "yes."  

The Freedom Caucus has discussed language addressing the flow of Syrian refugees to the United States, environmental regulations and Planned Parenthood as the type of riders that could earn their support for the overall measure. But they won’t support the omnibus if it includes language Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is seeking to remove campaign finance limits on how much political parties can spend on individual candidates, Salmon and Huelskamp said.  

On Planned Parenthood, conservatives are willing to forgo a full ban on federal funds if they can get language that would give states the power to redirect their portion of the funding to community health centers that don’t provide abortion services, Huelskamp said. That “compromise position” coupled with one of the other two pro-life related riders Freedom Caucus members are seeking — “conscious protections” for people who don’t want to be forced to participate in or pay for abortions and a funding issue Huelskamp says he is “not at liberty to mention” — would be enough to win a strong majority of the Freedom Caucus members, he said.  

Ryan has been reaching out to different parts of the caucus via his advisory group. Rep. Kirsti Noem, R-S.D., said the advisory group met Tuesday and discussed some of the riders in Republicans’ individual appropriations bills they think they can get in the omnibus. She said they were hopeful they could get some language blocking EPA air pollution regulations.   Republican Study Committee Chairman Bill Flores of Texas, a member of that group, said EPA riders, as well as language addressing the refugee program, were high on Republicans’ wish list.  

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who chairs the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education Appropriations Subcommittee, agreed, noting the relatively straightforward nature of the omnibus makes it more likely the GOP can get a majority.  

“We’ve got a couple of things working for us that we didn’t have before,” he said. “We don’t have a debt ceiling vote wound up in this omnibus, and we’ve got the defense number in the bill,'' Cole said, referring to extra money for national security that was part of a deal former Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, helped cut before leaving Congress in October.  

However, Cole said leadership has more work to do to make members feel their views are being included in negotiations. Still, he commended Ryan for largely keeping negotiations at the committee level.  

“He’s trying to force the decision making down, which I think is exactly the right thing to do — not only for this bill but for any bill that we have,” he said.  

If Ryan is able to secure broad Republican support for the omnibus, it would be a major victory in his effort to unite in the conference. But for some members, that means he needs to deliver on promises he has made to do more next year, like beginning efforts to rewrite the tax code and overhaul the nation’s entitlement programs.  

“That would pay for a lot of the damage we just inflicted on ourselves,” Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., told Roll Call. “The future promise of restoring fiscal sanity will get me to a 'yes' at present.”

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