Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., crossed the Rotunda Tuesday morning to assure House Republicans that the Senate plans to engage in a vigorous budget process and to stand firm on the Supreme Court vacancy.
McConnell’s assurances, however, seemed to do little to quell conservative opposition to operating under the budget deal crafted last year. The Republicans gathered as voters across the country began to head to the polls on Super Tuesday, to cast their votes for presidential contenders as well as the first congressional primaries.
“A lot of empty seats,” joked Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., as he exited the meeting. “It’s a big day, obviously, but that dampens attendance”
Cole said after some quick jokes about lawmakers’ absence from their weekly caucus meeting, they got down to business, with McConnell emphasizing his goal for Congress to pass all 12 government funding bills, something that hasn’t been done since 1994. Several Republicans also said McConnell emphasized that he will stand firm in his commitment not to consider the president’s nominee to the Supreme Court.
“I think it was a pretty well received message,” Cole said.
Cole’s fellow Oklahoma Republican, Sen. James Lankford, also joined the meeting. Lankford’s spokesman said he was invited to attend since he was a member of House leadership during the last Congress and has relationships in the House.
Several House Republicans leaving the meeting mentioned that McConnell said he is willing to spend significant floor time on appropriations bills.
“He’s made a commitment, public and private, again just now, that they’re going to make every effort to move these bills,” said House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky. “And apparently, he says, that that has the support of Democratic leadership. We’ll see.”
Still House conservatives remained critical of the argument that Congress must operate under funding levels agreed to in a budget deal last year.
“We’ve been through this before. And it sounds like we’re going to have the same problems we’ve had in the past,” said Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich. “And just looking at our budget, for example, it used to be presented to our conference as an aspirational document. It’s our vision for how we want appropriations to go. Now we’re told it’s supposed to be the deal that the president will take. And that’s a very different view of our budget.”
Amash is a founding member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, a key block of House members that has sought to gain more leverage in the budget process. McConnell met with the HFC board last week, but much of that meeting focused on the Supreme Court.
Amash said he was not confident that the appropriations process would be completed this year. And fellow caucus member Dave Brat, R-Va., agreed.
“I just don’t think that we’re paying sufficient attention to what’s going on in the presidential election right now, Super Tuesday across the country. It appears the people want massive change, quick,” Brat said. “And are you hearing any massive change quick coming out of this body, the House or the Senate? I’ll just put it that way.”
Brat said he personally did not raise concerns in the meeting, but questions about the budget process were asked.
“It’s just a matter of what you think the Senate can do,” Brat said. “It just doesn’t look like they can do enough.”
House Republicans were united behind McConnell in supporting his stance on the Supreme Court. Senate Republicans have vowed not to hold a hearing or a vote on the president’s high court nominee to fill the vacancy left by Justice Antonin Scalia, who died on Feb. 13.
The House Republicans said there was not concern that a standoff over the Supreme Court in the Senate could stall the appropriations process.
“It was discussed somewhat. There was not a lengthy discussion about it,” Rogers said of the Supreme Court. “The Republicans in the Senate are apparently not going to do anything about the vacancy, even hold hearings or the like. So there’s little opportunity for Democrats to do something because there’s not going to be anything brought up that would trigger or allow that to be done.”
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