A Four-Way Staring Contest Over Keeping the Government Open

With the clock ticking on reaching a spending deal, GOP leaders are locked in a battle of wills with conservatives, defense hawks, and Democrats.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi attend a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony honoring former Sen. Bob Dole on Wednesday.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Jan. 17, 2018, 8 p.m.

With two days to go before a partial government shutdown, House Republican leaders are locked in a four-way staring contest with Democrats and two influential segments of their own conference hoping that someone else blinks before they are forced to themselves.

Speaker Paul Ryan may put a short-term spending measure on the House floor as soon as Thursday, but absent an immigration deal that clarifies the legal status of undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children, Democrats have indicated that Republicans will have to put up their own votes to keep the government funded.

Unfortunately for leaders, they are beset by their own intraparty drama. After surveying their members Wednesday, two sources in the GOP whip operation noted that they may have problems passing the short-term bill on the strength of solely Republican votes.

Chief among the problems is that some defense hawks, tired of funding the military through stopgap measures, are threatening to withhold their votes. They have resumed their ask from last year that leaders fund defense for a full year while continuing domestic spending for a month.

“I think we should fully fund defense, put it over to the Senate, and make them vote against our men and women in uniform,” said Rep. Steve Russell, an Army veteran and a Republican member of the Armed Services Committee. “We don’t need to give up doing the important thing with the defense numbers and what our men and women do need, even if that means a spat here for a few days.”

The defense hawks are being joined in that pursuit by members of the House Freedom Caucus, some of whom also have concerns about immigration. In addition to the defense measure, some of those conservatives want leaders to agree to hold a vote on a hard-line immigration bill proposed by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte and other members, though Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said Tuesday that their votes on the spending bill are not contingent on that assurance.

Both groups asked for the full-year defense-funding bill at the end of last year, but leaders declined to pursue that strategy and the groups backed down and voted for a short-term measure to give leaders more time to negotiate. It is not clear if they will do so again.

Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes went so far as to ask members to vote against the continuing resolution while leaders whipped their members during a Wednesday vote, and Meadows continued to say that the Freedom Caucus could not be counted on for votes this time, either.

Yet in private meetings this week, leaders cautioned against funding defense on a separate track from domestic spending, noting that instead of forcing a statement vote in the Senate, the measure would die a quiet death there because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would not even put it on the floor.

Still, there is not unanimity among defense hawks. Rep. Mike Turner, for one, said he will not be following his colleagues’ strategy.

“I’m going to vote for the CR because I support the speaker’s efforts to get an agreement on funding our military. It is a travesty that the Senate has not done their work,” he said. “Our men and women in uniform should not be held hostage for unrelated issues.”

Despite the revolt within his own party, Ryan trained his ire on Democrats, telling reporters that they would be hard pressed to vote against the continuing resolution because it includes six years of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, as well as delays to some unpopular Obamacare taxes.

“Cool heads hopefully will prevail,” Ryan said. “Good-faith negotiations are under way, and to push that aside and try and jeopardize funding for things like S-CHIP and our military, to me, makes no sense.”

To be sure, some Democrats will be faced with a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” vote; voting for a CR without an immigration deal will draw consternation from the liberal base, but a vote against a CR that includes military and children’s-health funding could be used as a political cudgel during a campaign.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, however, contended that Ryan made that dilemma easier by declining to include in the bill other Democratic priorities, such as funding for community health centers and extensions of Medicare provisions that must be renewed periodically.

“They’re asking us to vote against our beliefs. We can’t do that. We can’t vote for what they’re putting forth—not for what’s in it but what’s not in it,” Pelosi said. “We will not give up our leverage, for our priorities and for our Dreamers. Unity is something that has to be … done when it’s easy and when it’s hard.”

In all, 14 Democrats voted for the CR in December. Pelosi has proven herself an able vote-counter, but many of those 14 members hail from the conservative Democratic flank and may choose to pursue their own political instincts rather than those of their leader.

Still, most of those Democrats also withheld their votes in December until Republicans showed they could pass the measure on their own. Pelosi indicated that if Republicans cannot pass that threshold this time, they would be unwise to test House Democrats’ party unity.

“This is an important moment for our caucus, standing up for what we know is right and to fight them,” Pelosi said. “And we’ll see if [Republicans] have the votes to send the CR to the Senate. We’ll see.”

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