Lawmakers eye looming ‘problematic’ funding bills

Congressional leaders are moving quickly to pass their first batch of bills to fund the government for most of 2024 by next Friday, but negotiators are already looking to a March 22 deadline when they say their tougher bills come due. 

Congress approved its fourth stopgap for fiscal year 2024 this week after leaders said they needed more time to pass the first set of government funding bills.

Leaders have said negotiators have come to an agreement on the first tranche of bills coming down the pike next week – but funding chiefs have signaled some trouble ahead as they negotiate the remaining bills. 

“I feel like there’s some optimism, obviously we’re talking about six right now,” Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), a spending cardinal for the subcommittee that handles funding for the IRS and other offices, said this week. “We got another six, those are the more problematic ones.” 

“We’ve still got a few issues that were divided on, but it’s what we do. We negotiate back and forth and find some agreement,” Womack said. The Arkansas Republican previously noted areas like the FBI, IRS and election security assistance as early points of contention.

His subcommittee’s forthcoming bill, which funds financial services and general government (FSGG), falls under the March 22 deadline. Other full-year funding bills covered by the deadline include dollars for the departments of Homeland Security, the Pentagon, Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, State, as well as foreign operations and the legislative branch.  

Negotiators tasked with crafting the bills have been mostly quiet on details of the evolving plans, but some have pointed to a combination of partisan policy additions and the difficulty of finding common ground in divvying up their allocations as hurdles to talks.  

Pressed on specifics about the bill earlier this week, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the head of the upper chamber’s subcommittee negotiating the FSGG bill, said this week that negotiators are still “working through the numbers that are not finalized.” 

But he also argued that “the bigger issue right now is Republican demands for poison pill riders,” as Democrats have sharply come out against a lengthy list of conservative priorities being sought by other side of the aisle in funding discussions.  

The measures Republicans pursued as part of their initial FSGG funding plan proposed last year included language targeting the District’s law that aimed to protect people from employer discrimination based on their reproductive health decisions. Divides over that proposal, in addition to other issues related to FBI funding, helped lead to House Republicans scrapping plans to pass it amid internal divides in the conference on funding.  

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has been facing pressure from his right flank to secure as many conservative policy changes as possible in the funding fight, particularly as hardline conservatives have been vocal in their dissatisfaction with the overall funding levels agreed to as part of a bicameral and bipartisan spending compromise announced earlier this year. 

However, leaders and spending cardinals on both sides have indicated further disappointment may be on the way for conservatives.  

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, told reporters Thursday that “no poison pills” made it into the first package of funding bills expected to drop in the days ahead.  

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who heads the subcommittee that oversees funding for the Interior Department, also said of his subpanel’s emerging bill on Thursday that Republicans “got some things in there that I think are important to some members.” But he signaled a chunk of the more partisan plan the House GOP was initially pushing for ended up left on the cutting room floor.  

“A lot of stuff that got dropped out, as we knew it would, and everybody knew it would, but they want to make a statement on the floor and that’s okay,” Simpson told reporters. “But the Democrats were never going to agree with a lot of those things.” 

“But I think we got some good provisions,” he said. “So, did Democrats frankly, that’s kind of the nature of a compromise.” 

Johnson himself has told Republicans not to expect many “home runs” or “grand slams.”

The comments come as some Republicans argue that internal divides in the party have strengthened Democrats’ hand heading into bipartisan spending talks earlier this year.  

House GOP leadership is expected to bring up funding legislation next week under a suspension of the rules, given staunch opposition from hardline conservatives.  

While that would allow the House to bring up legislation without having to do a procedural vote first, it would also require two-thirds of the chamber’s support for passage, instead of the usual simple majority threshold – meaning Democratic support would be necessary to get the measure across the finish line.  

“The reality is that if you have to pass these things by suspension, you’ve given [Democrats] more strength,” Simpson said, adding: “I can’t tell you how many times during negotiations, what we heard from the other side was ‘Hey, we’re going to bring 200 votes to pass these by suspension, what are you going to bring?’” 

“It feels kind of like we’re in the Senate, where the Democrats in the Senate have to get 10 Republican votes to pass anything, you know?” he said. “Well, okay, we need some Democratic votes to pass these if we’re going to do it on suspension.” 

“So, it gave them, I think, the Speaker’s right, it gave them leverage that they wouldn’t otherwise have by our inability to pass a rule,” he added.  

Under the stopgap measure signed into law by President Biden on Friday, lawmakers agreed to push bills funding the departments of Agriculture, Justice, Commerce, Veterans Affairs, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Interior and Energy up against the March 8 deadline. 

Negotiators say staffs have been moving quickly behind the scenes and combing through text to prepare for a weekend rollout. 

“Our guys were reading it in today … every single page,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), top Republican on the subcommittee assembling the Interior funding bill, told The Hill on late Thursday.  

“They read it out loud to one another. They sit around the table. All the staffs from all the four corners, and they read it to the comma, and to the period, and to the quotations, and to the cites,” she added. “It’s tedious, takes forever.” 

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