While lawmakers are away from Capitol Hill on August recess, the two largest conservative caucuses in Congress are working to keep a lame-duck spending bill from getting off the ground after the elections.
Before Congress recessed, the Freedom Caucus and Republican Study Committee gathered enough signatures to force GOP leadership into scheduling a conference to discuss the party’s plan for funding the federal government, The Daily Signal has learned.
That moves coincides with a shift in conservative strategy on government funding. Conservatives aren’t trying to reduce spending anymore this year. They’re trying to buy time.
“Are we going to reduce the deficit, yes or no?” Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., asked in an interview with The Daily Signal. “The answer is no and the American people aren’t happy with that. So now we just need to do damage control.”
Reducing government spending remains the long-term goal for conservatives, Brat said. But for now, their immediate concern is preventing any new increases before the year ends.
That requires convincing the GOP conference to abandon a stalled appropriations process and to adopt instead a continuing resolution, a measure that would lock in government spending at current levels until next March.
“[Republican Study Committee Chairman] Bill Flores and a number of us have called for a special conference on the [continuing resolution] issue,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, told The Daily Signal. “When we get back, we’re going to push for a longer [continuing resolution] that gets us to next session.”
Conservatives won’t have much time to make their case when Congress returns to session Sept. 6. To avoid a shutdown, lawmakers must reach a deal before the government’s spending authority expires at the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30.
But by reaching a permanent deal now, conservatives hope to avoid a last-minute omnibus bill later during the lame-duck session, which follows the Nov. 8 elections and precedes the swearing-in of the new president and Congress in January.
There are significant trade-offs, though. Conservatives would have to surrender and abandon their long-standing budget battle with leadership.
Since last January, spending hawks have tried to torpedo the $1.07 trillion Obama-Boehner budget deal backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. The continuing resolution currently pushed by members of the Freedom Caucus would set top-line spending $30 billion below that level.
But that relatively small amount is worth it, Jordan told The Daily Signal, because while conservatives loath higher spending, “experience and recent history” have taught them to fear the lame duck more.
“Many members are willing to tolerate the spending level that we don’t think is right,” Jordan said, “but we can only tolerate that if we can avoid the lame duck, if we can get the right time frame.”
Part of every congressional life cycle, the lame-duck session occurs after the November election but before newly elected lawmakers arrive in Washington. Unaccountable to their constituents, outgoing politicians often use the window to help pass controversial legislation.
If Congress votes on an omnibus spending bill during the lame-duck session, conservatives fear, liberals will try to slip policy riders on controversial subjects into the must-pass piece of legislation.
The session, for instance, represents the last best chance for President Barack Obama to advance his marquee trade agreement, the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership. The White House indicated in June that it plans to run a two-minute drill on trade during the lame duck.
“There is a pathway forward here,” U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, the White House’s ambassador on trade matters, told The New York Times. “And what we’re trying to do right now is just maximize the likelihood that we’ll be able to walk down that path successfully.”
As Obama’s exit from the White House approaches, anxiety over the lame-duck session has increased exponentially.
“The session happens every time there’s an election,” a senior Republican aide told The Daily Signal. “But what are Obama and Reid going to try and get though now that it’s their last time around?”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will retire Jan. 3 after 30 years in the Senate.
If Congress passes a continuing resolution now, conservatives argue, there won’t be any pressure to pass an omnibus spending bill later and no legislative vehicle for amendments by Democrats.
The conservative strategy already has gained some traction among Senate Republicans.
“I’m not a fan of kicking things into a lame-duck session,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas told reporters before Congress adjourned for recess. “If you held a gun to my head and made me choose the length of the [continuing resolution] as the last option, I’d say let’s kick this over into the first part of next year.”
House leadership, however, has been hesitant to get on board.
Ryan has made funding the government according to regular order a top priority during his short tenure as House speaker. Congress should pass individual spending bills for specific government programs, the Wisconsin representative argues, rather than a one-and-done omnibus package.
But with only 17 legislative days before Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, many on Capitol Hill see a continuing resolution as inevitable. And Democrats are already fighting to defeat any continuing resolution that puts spending levels on autopilot until next March.
“We would be very strongly opposed to that. It wouldn’t happen,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the third-ranking Senate Democrat, told Politico. “We’re going to work and get a good omnibus bill.”
Conservatives say House leadership has been unresponsive so far to their pleas for a continuing resolution. A senior leadership aide told The Daily Signal that “no decisions have been made” about embracing a continuing resolution.
The longer Republicans wait to vote on a continuing resolution, Brat said, the more likely it is that Congress will make a last-minute deal in December.
“Do we want leadership negotiating right before Christmas like they have these last two years?” the Virginia Republican asked, “when we bust the spending caps again, increase the deficit even more, and lose all conservative policy riders?”
“That’s the last thing we want and that’s why we want a [continuing resolution] going into March,” Brat concluded.
The conservative effort to end the lame-duck session isn’t anything new. A group of 75 conservative organizations sent an April 14 letter to Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., urging them to take steps to avoid a lame duck.
That effort hasn’t always been warmly received.
“What has the Freedom Caucus been fighting about—on not doing the budget all year—if they’re going to turn around and cave on a [$1.07 trillion] level at the last minute,” a senior Republican staffer told The Daily Signal.
More establishment Republicans complain that major legislative business wouldn’t be necessary in a lame-duck session if conservatives would have gotten on board with higher spending earlier on.
Things won’t “magically” look better for conservatives next year anyway, the staffer predicted, suggesting Democrats could win the Senate and the White House on Nov. 8.
“Don’t they realize they could be negotiating with a Majority Leader [Chuck] Schumer and a President Clinton? What then?”