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House conservative demands stall efforts to avert shutdown

House conservative demands stall efforts to avert shutdown

Conservatives’ demands for controversial policy additions to spending bills are stalling efforts to fund the government by Friday, nudging the country closer to a partial government shutdown and sparking frustration among lawmakers in both parties.

Congressional leaders failed to unveil the long-awaited compromise appropriations bills over the weekend, blowing through a Sunday target date floated last week and, as a result, leaving members wondering about a path forward just days ahead of the looming deadline.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said House Republicans were responsible for the holdup, writing in a letter to colleagues Sunday that conservatives in the lower chamber “need more time to sort themselves out.” Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), however, dismissed his “counterproductive rhetoric,” saying that new requests from Democrats had delayed the process.

The blame-game preview comes as hard-liners are pressuring Johnson to use the appropriations process to extract policy concessions from Democrats after the Speaker cut two previous spending deals with lawmakers across the aisle, which incensed members of the right-flank.

At the same time, Democrats, Senate Republicans and the White House are pushing for a bipartisan deal to keep the lights on in Washington, a message that will ring loud and clear for Johnson on Tuesday when President Biden hosts the top four congressional leaders to discuss government funding.

Those dynamics are thrusting the Speaker into a familiar — yet difficult — decision: Cave to conservatives and force a shutdown that would be politically perilous for Republicans, or break from GOP hard-liners and work out a spending deal with Democrats that risks sparking a rebellion on the right.

Prominent lawmakers are imploring him to choose the latter.

“It is my sincere hope that in the face of a disruptive shutdown that would hurt our economy and make American families less safe, Speaker Johnson will step up to once again buck the extremists in his caucus and do the right thing,” Schumer said Sunday.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who on Monday said a shutdown would be “harmful to the country” — called for full cooperation among lawmakers in the sprint to avert a funding lapse.

“We have the means — and just enough time this week — to avoid a shutdown and to make serious headway on annual appropriations. But as always, the task at hand will require that everyone rows in the same direction: toward clean appropriations and away from poison pills,” McConnell said.

Congress enacted a stopgap bill last month that extended funding through March 1 for programs and agencies covered by four of the 12 annual spending bills, including military construction, water development and the departments of Agriculture, Energy, Veterans Affairs, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development. Funding for the remaining eight bills will run out on March 8.

Senior negotiators in both chambers had been hopeful Congress could meet the March 1 deadline as lawmakers signaled some progress in spending talks in recent weeks. Johnson was also looking to move a package of the first four bills this week to stave off a partial shutdown, a source familiar told The Hill over the weekend.

Concerns, however, are already bubbling up that Congress is headed for another short-term funding patch as hard-liners dial up pressure on the Speaker to secure conservative policy wins in areas like abortion and the border.

Some on the right flank say they are willing to shut down the government absent any conservative wins.

“The government shutdown is not ideal, but it’s not the worst thing,” Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), the chair of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said on Fox Business Network Monday. “It would be worse to exacerbate the problem, to further increase our debt and our spending, to make our fiscal situation, which is unprecedented as it is, as you know, to continue to fund a government that’s facilitating the border invasion.”

“We shouldn’t be joining hands with Democrats just to show we can govern or we can get things done, no matter how harmful to the American people,” he added.

Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), a member of the right-leaning group, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday he “will not be voting for any funding if the border is not secured.”

“Anything I vote for has to secure our border. And the president should agree to that,” he added. “That’s common sense for a nation like America.”

The House Freedom Caucus sent a warning shot to Johnson last week, demanding an update on their laundry list of policy requests and cautioning that if the priorities are not included in funding measures, he should not count on the bills receiving widespread GOP support in the chamber.

They are demanding policies that would eliminate the salaries of controversial Cabinet officials, target transgender- and abortion-related issues and gut the Biden administration’s climate initiatives, among other hot-button matters.

At the same time, Republicans are pointing the finger at Democrats, who have been pressing for increased funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — referred to as WIC —to address a shortfall for the program.

As part of the spending talks, a House aide said Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), a spending cardinal for the subcommittee that oversees funding for the program and other agencies, is pressing for changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as the food stamp program. Those changes include ensuring that recipients are using benefits to buy “nutritional” foods, the aide said, while also limiting access to items like “soda, candy [and] certain snacks.”

Other areas of funding that top appropriators identified as problem spots earlier this month included the FBI, IRS and election security assistance, as both chambers work to conference their drastically different funding bills into bipartisan measures that can pass a divided Congress.

Conversations about next steps will come to a head Tuesday, when President Biden is set to host the top four congressional leaders — Johnson, Schumer, McConnell and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) — for a meeting at the White House to discuss government funding.

Biden is also expected to press leaders on the need to pass an emergency defense and foreign package that includes assistance for Ukraine and Israel, as well funding to replenish U.S. weapons and munitions. The Senate approved a $95 billion package earlier this month that has been pushed aside by House Republicans, throwing the future of foreign aid into question.

“We also want to see that the government does not get shut down, it is a basic, basic priority or duty of Congress is to keep the government open,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday when asked about the gathering. “So that’s what the president wants to see, he’ll have those conversations.”

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