House Republican leaders on Monday finally agreed to execute a government funding strategy conservatives and defense hawks have been pushing for months: fully fund the Department of Defense through the end of fiscal 2018 while keep the remaining agencies running through a fifth a stopgap measure.
The play call in advance of the Feb. 8 government funding deadline all but assures a volley with the Senate, which is expected to reject the House GOP measure.
The bill would include the $659 billion defense appropriations bill the House passed last week, which waives the defense cap, and a continuing resolution for remaining agencies through March 23. It would also include funding for community health centers lasting two years, so-called Medicare extenders and several funding anomalies to get around the limits a CR imposes.
Some of the provisions are intended as sweetners for Democrats, but they’re not expected to take the bait.
“Speaker [Paul D.] Ryan is again considering a cromibus, a short-term extension of funding for urgent domestic priorities but a long-term extension and a large increase in funding for defense to placate the ultraconservatives in his caucus,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said in floor remarks Monday before House GOP leaders had announced the plan.
The New York Democrat cited a letter he sent to Ryan last year with 44 Senate Democrats saying they would not support a cromnibus. Only 41 votes are needed to filibuster the spending bill
“If he lets the Freedom Caucus be the tail that wags the dog, there’s no way we’ll reach an agreement that can pass the Senate,” Schumer said.
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But House GOP leaders are moving forward with that plan despite Schumer’s warning, with support from the vast majority of their conference.
The cromnibus idea has been floated for months, not just by the Freedom Caucus — which took an official position Monday night in support of the measure — but by the Republican Study Committee, the larger conservative caucus, and defense hawks on the Armed Services Committee.
“I thought it has been the right move for some time,” RSC Chairman Mark Walker said after leaders announced the plan during a Monday evening conference meeting.
The GOP conference first debated the cromnibus idea in December, but leadership ultimately decided against moving forward with it after an unfavorable whip check. However, the lack of support at the time was not over the cromnibus but rather over concerns a disaster funding package would not be moved along with the funding measure. (It ultimately advanced out of the House but stalled in the Senate.)
“The timing was just as good, if not better, back then,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said. “But sometimes, play calls get made in the first quarter, and sometimes they get made in the fourth quarter. And this one just happened to be made in the fourth quarter.”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy made the case during the conference meeting that timing was important, and Walker said he understood the argument for executing the plan now.
“You look at it from a political strategic standpoint, the Democrats have made several bad decisions and several bad moves, notwithstanding from the shutdown we’ve talked about,” the North Carolina Republican said. “But I believe this is the right season, the right time, because it’s going to be a very difficult vote for some of the people. And we hope their heart is in the right place and they will support our military and defense.”
Many House Republicans expressed similar hope that the Senate would pass the bill but acknowledged it would likely be rejected and amended with an alternative the House will have to consider later.
“I think everybody’s realistic enough to understand that — but remember we’ll have every Democrat in the Senate on record,” said Alabama Rep. Bradley Byrne, a defense hawk. “And we’ll have them on record shutting down the government, again.”
Democratic retreat in question
House Democrats will also be on record, likely with most in opposition.
“We’ll urge our people to vote ‘no’ on that,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer told Roll Call when asked about the GOP plan.
“The premise that it hurts defense is correct,” the Maryland Democrat said of a CR. “The premise that it doesn’t hurt others — every agency of government is devastated by the failure to have the opportunity to plan, to apply money to enter into contracts, to hire people. It is incredible that we’re now four-plus months into the fiscal year and they still don’t have an agreement on how we’re going to fund the government.”
Hoyer said he hopes the Senate would reject such an imbalanced funding plan and send something better back to the House, even though that may interfere with House Democrats’ plans to be in Cambridge, Maryland, from Wednesday through Friday for their annual retreat.
“We’ll be here,” he said of such a scenario. “If we need to be here, we’ll be here.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is likely to take up the House funding bill, even if it fails to meet a procedural hurdle needed to move forward.
“Last week a bipartisan majority in the House passed a bill that would fund our national defense through fiscal year 2018,” he said in floor remarks Monday afternoon. “The Senate will soon take up this House-passed bill.”
It was not clear whether McConnell was referring to the cromnibus, which had not been formally announced when he spoke, or the separate defense appropriations bill the House passed last week, but the effect would be same. He is ready to put Senate Democrats on record regarding defense funding.
House Republicans will not be thrilled if the Senate rejects their bill.
“I’m not going to be happy … until there’s a full defense bill signed into law,” House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry said.
Asked if he thinks the cromnibus will force the Senate to finally agree to that, the Texas Republican said, “It’s about funding the military. It’s not about forcing anybody, it’s about doing the right thing.”
Meadows said the Freedom Caucus discussed the possibility of the Senate sending an amended measure back to the House and group members plan to stay firm on fully funding defense.
“I think we send it back to them, same way,” the North Carolina Republican said of his caucus’s preferred response to Senate changes.
The GOP’s strategy seems to be to back Senate Democrats into a corner so their only choices are to either support a defense funding increase without an equal nondefense increase and immigration deal they’ve been seeking or shut down the government.
“At some point, in order to run the government, you’ve got to learn how to give and work together,” Byrne said. “And so far the Democrats keep trying to take this hostage and that hostage and they’re not succeeding. And so are they willing to fail again? I don’t think so.”
Democrats believe if they agree to a defense funding increase, they won’t get the nondefense increase, but Byrne rejected that argument.
“We all know that we’re going to get a higher domestic discretionary number than we would like,” he said. “I think that’s a given in this scenario.”
Morgan Cahn contributed to this report.