Rank-and-file Republicans fear lame-duck vote on pricey funding bill

Rank-and-file Republicans fear lame-duck vote on pricey funding bill
© Greg Nash

Rank-and-file House Republicans are dreading voting on a huge spending deal in the lame-duck session — but they may have no choice.

Funding for the federal government dries up at the end of September, forcing Congress to move a stopgap spending bill just weeks before the Nov. 8 presidential election.

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Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus are pushing to extend government funding into early 2017, wary of a massive bipartisan spending deal in the lame-duck. But GOP leaders and House Democrats are already laying the groundwork for a short-term continuing resolution, or CR, that will set up a vote on a catch-all spending bill right before the holidays.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Democrats are sure to press their election-year priorities in the CR, including funding to fight the Zika virus and measures on water safety and gun control. Defense hawks want billions more in funding for the military. And President Obama is refusing to give up on a getting his 12-nation Pacific Rim trade deal through Congress as part of the end-of-year package.

It all puts Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanSanford: 'Testosterone can get you in trouble' Sanders says he will introduce 'Medicare for all' bill Trump: Conservative lawmakers, groups 'saved' Planned Parenthood, ObamaCare MORE (R-Wis.) in a familiar pickle.

“All signs point to a lame-duck unless Republican leaders take the initiative to support their rank and file who desperately want to avoid it,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action for America, a conservative outside group that’s been tracking the funding fight.

A big question mark is what happens on Election Day.

With Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer US envoy: No good military options against North Korea Trump official and TV surrogate leaving White House: reports Biden: I regret not being president MORE trailing Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonDemocrats step up calls that Russian hack was act of war Comet Ping Pong shooter pleads guilty Time for 'J. Edgar' Comey to take his leave MORE in the polls and hurting down-ballot Republicans, Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellThe Memo: Winners and losers from the battle over health care GOP senators pitch alternatives after House pulls ObamaCare repeal bill Under pressure, Dems hold back Gorsuch support MORE (R-Ky.) are well aware the GOP could lose not only the White House but the upper chamber, too. The GOP leaders would prefer to control the negotiation process while they’re still in power during the lame-duck, rather than risk handing the reins to a new Senate majority leader, likely Charles SchumerCharles SchumerDem to Trump: 'You truly are an evil man' Dem senator: GOP controls all of gov't, so success or failure is on them Trump tweets: We’ll put together a great plan after Obamacare explodes MORE (D-N.Y.), after the new year.   

If Ryan does moves forward with the lame-duck plan, he’ll lose conservatives insisting on a longer-term CR. That will force him to rely on the help of House Democrats to keep the government’s lights on past September. But in reaching across the aisle, the Wisconsin Republican risks alienating the Freedom Caucus, the bloc of conservative rebels who last year toppled Ryan’s predecessor, John BoehnerJohn BoehnerTrump, GOP fumble chance to govern ObamaCare gets new lease on life Ryan picks party over country by pushing healthcare bill MORE, for cutting those very types of deals.

The Freedom Caucus, led by Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), has not yet taken a position on the government funding issue. But Freedom sources said a majority of the group’s three-dozen members are unwilling to vote for any CR that doesn’t extend funding into 2017, when it’s possible a new Republican president may be occupying the White House.

Pushing off the government funding fight until spring also would align it with another battle over raising the government’s debt limit.

“No good decisions ever get made right before Christmas,” one of the Freedom leaders, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), told The Hill.

But Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior appropriator and leadership ally, dismissed the Freedom group’s approach, saying it’s backed by Republicans who would rather create “some sort of massive showdown crisis.”

Defections by Republicans opposed to spending levels, the timeline or legislative riders could further empower House Democrats in the spending debate.

For months, Democrats have called for immediate action on a variety of issues they deem emergencies, including Zika, gun violence, opioid addiction and a drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich. And they're likely to highlight all of those issues as part of the CR debate, even as they acknowledge that most won't survive as part of the package.

Zika funding, they say, has the best chance of moving before the elections. And in that debate, the Democrats are getting a big boost from respected Florida Republicans, some of whom — like Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioSenators introduce new Iran sanctions Senate intel panel has not seen Nunes surveillance documents: lawmakers With no emerging leaders, no clear message, Democrats flounder MORE and Rep. Carlos Curbelo — are facing tough reelection contests this year. Those voices, along with safer incumbents like Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), are pushing Ryan and McConnell hard to address the growing crisis as quickly as possible.

Emboldened by the GOP support, Democrats appear poised to ramp up their Zika efforts.

“It is important that the CR is ‘clean’ and fully funds the emergency needs we face today, especially the Zika virus,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), the top Democrat on the Appropriations health subcommittee, said in an email.

Rep. Dan Kildee (D), who represents Flint, said he'll use the CR debate to push his proposal to boost federal funding for his city.

“While it might not be dominating the headlines like it once did ... the crisis continues because the aftermath is still ongoing,” Kildee said in a phone interview. Kildee said he's “not giving up on any vehicle” — “we're not giving up on the CR” — though he acknowledged that the larger omnibus spending package expected in the lame-duck is the more likely vehicle “from a practical point of view.”

“The onus is really on Congress to take this up,” Kildee said.

Gun reform could also surface in the CR debate. Democrats in June took the remarkable step of commandeering the House floor to protest Republicans' inaction on the issue. And with polls indicating overwhelming support for reforms like expanding background checks, Democrats will likely try to revisit the issue, if only to put it back in the headlines ahead of the elections.

While some conservative Republicans may be pushing for a longer term CR extending into the first quarter of 2017, Democratic leaders are sending early warnings that they’re not on board.

“If House Republicans pursue a continuing resolution into next year rather than addressing the many critical decisions, funding and otherwise, facing the American people, that will be a failure for Speaker Ryan and a clear sign they cannot govern,” said a Democratic leadership aide.

There’s a sense among many Republicans that the cake is already baked. During a recent conference call with his vote-counting team, Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) presented the GOP’s options for a CR: Some Republicans want funding to extend to December; others want it extended it longer. Scalise asked his team for feedback, and after a few minutes of awkward silence, the call was ended.

“It was weird that he got no feedback,” said one lawmaker on the call. “Of course, we'll end up with a CR til December eventually.”

Ryan held a call on Thursday with House Republicans. Brendan Buck, a spokesman for the speaker's office, said the call was "all very general" and that Ryan “definitely expressed no preference” about an option for a funding bill.

With a half-dozen spending bills already passed in the House and Senate, Cole said leadership could create packages of “minibuses,” instead of one large omnibus like last year. He said those packages could include three or four already-passed bills that could have an easier path to passage.

Negotiations with Democrats and the White House would begin shortly after the election, Cole said. With “legacy items” like cancer research and the overtime pay rule at stake, he said, Republicans would have more leverage with Obama than either a Clinton or Trump White House.

“You’d rather end on something like that — progress on cancer moonshot — than, ‘Hey I ended with a whimper, ended with a CR that went into the next person’s term,’” Cole said.

“It’s a shame if this president and this Congress decide it’s just too hard to govern.”

Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.