Senate’s Move on Stopgap Turns Tables on the House Again

Ryan left negotiating with members of his own party

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said leaders are eyeing Dec. 9 as the end date of a stopgap spending bill to keep government agencies and programs running. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said leaders are eyeing Dec. 9 as the end date of a stopgap spending bill to keep government agencies and programs running. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 8, 2016 at 11:48am

The Senate appears on track to once again surge past the House on appropriations work, as House Republicans remain hung up over a continuing resolution needed to keep the government lights on after Sept. 30.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Wednesday that he’s engaging in talks with the White House and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid to move a short-term stopgap spending bill to the floor as early as next week. In the House, Speaker Paul D. Ryan has not yet begun official talks within his own party, which is divided between a shorter-term continuing resolution that would wrap up spending decisions this year and a stopgap that would last until next March.

McConnell said Senate leaders are eyeing Friday, Dec. 9, as the end date for the CR, though his fellow Kentucky Republican Harold Rogers, the House Appropriations chairman, said he’d prefer Dec. 16, the following Friday and the very last scheduled day of work for both chambers in 2016.

The decisive move places the Senate at the helm of congressional spending decisions, which traditionally originate in the House, for the second time this year. It also leaves Ryan negotiating with members of his own party, instead of with other members of leadership.

McConnell’s action on the CR is similar to a decision he made earlier in the year to use last year’s House-passed appropriations bills as shells for the Senate’s fiscal 2017 spending bills. The procedural maneuver allowed the Senate to move first on individual appropriations bills while the House was delayed, because House Republicans could not agree on bringing their budget resolution to the floor for a vote. It never did make it to the floor.

The varying speeds of the two chambers showcase the key differences between the Republican majorities in the House and the Senate. Leading a chamber where Democratic votes are often needed to pass legislation, McConnell faces a different reality than Ryan, who leads a larger but more fractious GOP majority.

[House Leadership Tips Hand on CR Preference]

“The speaker is talking to his members, I believe, later in the week about how to go forward,” McConnell said Wednesday. “But we think the Senate ought to be able to resolve the issues that confront us, and go forward. And we hope to do that very soon.”

McConnell’s announcement also deals a significant blow to the more conservative House Republicans who want to skip the lame-duck session of Congress by passing a six-month stopgap measure that funds the government into March 2017.

With McConnell, Reid and President Barack Obama potentially in agreement over the duration of the CR — along with House Democratic leaders — Ryan has even less motivation to swim against the tide by pushing for a lengthier CR to appease his right flank.

His top lieutenant, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California has already expressed his preference for a shorter stopgap leading to a spending finale at the end of the year.

But the more conservative House members are not necessarily interested in going along with the Senate.

If the Senate is able to reach an agreement and pass a ten-week CR by next week, and the House continues to drag its feet, the Senate could even compound its swift action by adjourning early for the October recess. That would leave the House no option but to accept the Senate-passed CR or face the blame for a government shutdown.

Looming over all of the spending decisions to be made is the November elections, when control of one or both chambers could flip.

[What Is a Continuing Resolution?]

McConnell is likely eager to resolve the funding question quickly to allow vulnerable GOP senators to get back to the campaign trail. And both McConnell and Ryan will want to avoid any whiff of a shutdown threat just a few weeks before voters cast their ballots.

A further sign that conservatives are backing down from their demands came Tuesday night, when House Freedom Caucus members at a group meeting appeared to begin discussing a plan B.

While no formal decisions were made at the meeting, members appeared broadly supportive of a plan to push for including policy language dealing with Syrian refugees in a short-term CR if GOP leaders were unwilling to pursue a longer CR, according to an aide familiar with the discussions.

Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.