Conservatives left frustrated as Congress passes big spending bills

Weeks before the midterm elections, conservatives in the House are gaining little traction on fiscal issues as Congress passed one spending bill after another in bipartisan votes.

It's a significant shift from the last few years, when the House Freedom Caucus often threw a wrench into appropriations plans with demands to cut mandatory spending and advance other conservative priorities.

“It’s a little bit frustrating right now,” said Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerPartnerships paving the way to sustain and support Historically Black Colleges and Universities Lawmaker seeks to ban ex-members from lobbying until sexual harassment settlements repaid Florida governor suspends Palm Beach County elections supervisor MORE, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), the largest GOP caucus in the House.

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Walker issued a warning last week that some RSC members may vote against a package of spending bills the House is due to consider when it returns to session. The package includes defense and labor appropriations and a continuing resolution to keep the parts of the government not yet funded by spending bills running past Oct. 1.

But Walker admits that he and other RSC members opposed to the package would seem to have little hope in blocking it.

The package passed in the Senate on Tuesday in an overwhelming 93-7 vote. In the House, an earlier package of spending bills passed in a 377-20 just last week, with both Democrats and Republicans backing it.

“I don’t know that conservatives have a whole lot of leverage here, so I haven’t given it as much thought as I have given to other things, because most of the Democrats will vote for this and smile very big,” said Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsThe Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine — Trump, Congress prepare for new border wall fight Winners and losers in the border security deal GOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration MORE (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus.

Several factors have left conservatives less well-positioned to extract concessions.

Congressional leadership strategically bundled funding for the labor bill, a major Democratic priority, with funding for the Pentagon, a major Republican priority. For conservatives, voting against the package would mean voting against an increase in defense spending and a raise for the troops.

“If they want to vote against defense, that’s up to them. I don’t quarrel with anybody’s vote. There’s going to be sufficient votes to pass the legislation,” said Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeGOP dismisses polls showing losing battle on shutdown Bottom Line Dems hit GOP on health care with additional ObamaCare lawsuit vote MORE (R-Okla.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee. Cole also praised the bipartisan commitment to keep controversial policy riders out of appropriations altogether in order to move the bills forward.

“That doesn’t mean those fights are over, it just means you’re not going to be able to win them in an appropriations bill,” he said.

Meadows said he would have no trouble voting against the defense bill because of what it is packaged with. He criticized GOP leaders for passing bills with Democratic support rather than focusing the bills on GOP priorities and muscling them through with Republican votes.

“It’s a Republican majority,” he said. “It’s always easy to pass a bill of the other party. I mean, I can tell you, most of my voters will not see this as a win.”

In an election year, however, lawmakers are often more excited about passing appropriations bills that often have spending that can be touted back home. And Republicans are facing a difficult midterm as they defend dozens of vulnerable members.

Another factor cutting into the leverage conservatives generally wield in the House is the fact that Congress already agreed to raise spending caps earlier this year as part of a bipartisan deal signed by the White House.

“The spending levels are always an issue for me personally, but we also had an agreement on what those would be this year,” said Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordHarris on election security: 'Russia can't hack a piece of paper' GOP advances rules change to speed up confirmation of Trump nominees GOP senator calls Omar's apology 'entirely appropriate' MORE (R-Okla.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “The time to be able to fight out what you’re going to do on the spending levels is earlier, before you make the agreement on what’s going to happen.”

Congress is not waiting until the eleventh hour to pass a funding bill. 

Earlier this year, Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump escalates fight with NY Times The 10 GOP senators who may break with Trump on emergency On unilateral executive action, Mitch McConnell was right — in 2014 MORE (R-Ky.) forced a brief government shutdown by insisting on an amendment vote on cutting spending. In the past, conservatives also threatened to slow-walk spending legislation to buy leverage.

This time, the central funding package was passed in the Senate nearly two weeks ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline for a shutdown.

In the House, conservative groups have in the past threatened their own leaders over spending and debt.

But that option is off the table this year as well. Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Sanders set to shake up 2020 race McCabe: No one in 'Gang of Eight' objected to FBI probe into Trump Unscripted Trump keeps audience guessing in Rose Garden MORE (R-Wis.) is retiring, and a member of the House Freedom Caucus is already running against leadership's preferred candidate. 

Conservatives also had an easier time raising a fuss over spending when the Senate and the White House were led by Democrats.

In 2011, conservatives Senators who saw spending as a major political priority threatened to throw a wrench in the gears of all Senate business until they got some concessions.

Conservative pressure groups have complained about the spending bills and recommending “no” votes, but that has not seemed to move the needle significantly.

“Republicans and President TrumpDonald John TrumpJustice Department preparing for Mueller report as soon as next week: reports Smollett lawyers declare 'Empire' star innocent Pelosi asks members to support resolution against emergency declaration MORE should not, and can not, afford to punt on the issues that got them elected before the midterm election. Republicans should reject this cromnibus and fight for a better deal,” Heritage Action wrote in a key vote note. 

The Club for Growth, another advocacy group, said the bill was “plain madness” and lamented that the increased spending levels seemed to satisfy most political priorities in Congress.

“In typical DC fashion, politicians in both parties settled their differences by just spending more money,” the group wrote in a release.

A handful of conservatives, such as Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyOvernight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns Top GOP candidate drops out of Ohio Senate race MORE (R-Pa.), were among the few who voted against the bill, saying it employed budget gimmicks that pushed spending even beyond the cap agreement. 

“It’s a completely dishonest gimmick to spend $7 billion above the cap that was agreed upon, and it’s really irresponsible,” he said.

But with just seven weeks until the midterm elections, most Republicans seem to be betting that a messy government shutdown would only complicate their chances of maintaining control of both chambers.