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 WalkerEx-state senator in North Carolina enters race against Tillis Ex-state senator in North Carolina enters race against Tillis Tillis dodges primary challenge in NC 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 MeadowsRep. Amash stokes talk of campaign against Trump Rep. Amash stokes talk of campaign against Trump House Oversight votes to hold Barr, Ross in contempt 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 ColeEx-GOP lawmaker says Trump 'illegitimate president,' should be impeached Ex-GOP lawmaker pens op-ed calling for Trump to be impeached House panel approves language revoking 2001 war authority as Iran tensions spike 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 LankfordHillicon Valley: Facebook unveils new cryptocurrency | Waters wants company to halt plans | Democrats look to force votes on election security | Advertisers partner with tech giants on 'digital safety' | House GOP unveils cyber agenda Democrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills Democrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills 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 PaulOvernight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn't want war with Iran Senators demand Trump explain decision to deploy troops amid Iran tensions Senators demand Trump explain decision to deploy troops amid Iran tensions 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 RyanPelosi slated to deliver remarks during panel hearing on poverty Indiana GOP Rep. Brooks says she won't seek reelection Indiana GOP Rep. Brooks says she won't seek reelection 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 TrumpGOP senator introduces bill to hold online platforms liable for political bias Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally Rubio responds to journalist who called it 'strange' to see him at Trump rally 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.