In spending bill fight, GOP mulls ratcheting up pressure on cuts

Fiscal conservatives are considering ratcheting up the pressure on Democrats if they are forced to come up with another short-term bill to fund the government.  

Republicans would prefer to pass a long-term spending measure and have already approved a bill for the rest of the fiscal year that cuts $61 billion. 

But that bill failed in a test vote in the Senate, and Democratic leader Sen. Harry Reid (Nev.) has made it clear that the House-passed bill will not make it through his chamber. 

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Talks are ongoing between Republicans, Senate Democrats and the White House to find a compromise that can pass Congress. But contentious House-approved cuts to programs like Planned Parenthood and healthcare reform have made the outcome of the negotiations uncertain.

Time is running out to find a solution. The latest stopgap bill expires on April 8, giving lawmakers just over two weeks to bridge a fierce partisan divide on spending. 

House Republican leaders have all but ruled out a government shutdown, remembering how that backfired on their party during the Clinton administration. 

With a shutdown seemingly off the table, Republicans are considering an alternative tactic: “ratchet” up demands in future short-term spending bills by including amendments that defund Democratic priorities like healthcare reform. 

A House GOP aide said Thursday “it is a possibility” that the GOP will increase its demands in an attempt to put the onus on Democrats to avoid a government shutdown. 

The House has already approved two short-term bills to fund the government that cut spending by $2 billion per week.

But passing another short-term bill in that mold might not fly with Tea Party-backed conservatives. Fifty-four House Republicans voted against the most recent three-week continuing resolution (CR) because it lacked the cuts passed by the House as amendments to the long-term bill. Those members want leadership to demand a full $61 billion in cuts immediately.

Tea Party groups and conservative organizations such as the Club for Growth, Family Research Council and Heritage Action are urging Republicans not to pass any more short-term bills. 

“No doubt about it: People are very restless, impatient with the process,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said last week. “I am not sure we can pass another short-term extension.”

With a revolt brewing among conservatives, GOP leaders might have no choice but to seek more concessions from Democrats in the next spending bill. 

Keith Hennessey, a fellow at the conservative-leaning Hoover Institution, last week floated the idea of ratcheting up the base level of spending cuts from $2 billion to $3 billion per week and suggested House Republicans should attach one of their favored policy riders onto the next bill.

“There appeared to be a building consensus to get to spending cuts, which was to take short-term CRs off the table and limit it to two options, which is a long-term deal or a shutdown,” Hennessey told The Hill.

“There are different tactical approaches. I wanted to point out that there is more than one strategy to achieve the shared goal of a lot of people to cut spending and to try to stop some of these policies,” Hennessey said. “Don’t take tactical options off the table; focus less on the tactics and more on the end result you want to get to.”

Hennessey said that he favors including an amendment that prevents the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating greenhouse gases in the next stopgap bill, partly because some Democrats support it. 

“It is easier to win on a policy rider if Democrats are splitting, because it makes it harder for the administration to argue that it is a partisan rider,” Hennessey said. 

Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, who favors passing short-term bills so long as sufficient spending cuts are made, also thinks the GOP should up its demands. 

“I certainly think ratcheting up the dollar amount as a way to put pressure on the other team is a good one,” Norquist said. “If I was changing, do one thing first: Increase the spending cut. Then go to riders.”

Norquist said the riders are dangerous because they “give the other team too many reasons to vote against” the spending bill, but he said the EPA rider would put Senate Democrats in a difficult position.

In order to oppose the EPA rider, Norquist said, Democrats would have to argue that bureaucrats, and not Congress, should be making key policy decisions.

Norquist does not think it at all likely that a longer-term spending bill can be agreed to by April 8. He said he assumes House leaders will present the $61 billion in cuts in H.R. 1 to the Senate once again and offer a short-term alternative.

“We’ll do the same thing, but make it more explicit: Here is what we’d like, and here is $2 billion in cuts per week,” he said. “I think that’s the smart strategy. I think that is the way they are going to go.”

Thomas Schatz, the president of the nonpartisan Citizens Against Government Waste, said the GOP should consider including less controversial riders first. He also said it would be very hard to come to any agreement by April 8. 

While noting that defunding Planned Parenthood over abortion could be the most difficult, he said cancelling the signs for stimulus projects or defunding the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change could find support in both parties.

Schatz said another policy rider blocking a regulation on for-profit schools could also have broad support. The amendment, which 58 Democrats supported last month, would cut off federal aid to for-profit schools that cannot prove enough of their graduates have found gainful employment. 

“It makes sense to test whether or not the Senate is going to go along with some of these,” Schatz said. “They should find a half-dozen or so that would be obvious to taxpayers — then you have established the precedent that the CR can include some riders.”

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