Senate GOP skeptical on McCarthy

Senate Republicans are skeptical about House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (Calif.) ability to unify his conference next year.

That concern has Republican senators pushing to pass a year-end spending package, including an increase in spending for defense and military assistance for Ukraine.

With a narrow majority in 2023, McCarthy’s struggles in lining up 218 votes to become Speaker have underscored the challenges he will face passing spending bills or any other major pieces of legislation next year.

Senate Republicans say McCarthy will likely have to rely on Democratic votes to pass spending bills next year to make up for defections within his own conference, which will undercut his negotiating leverage and spark fights with the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

Republican senators allied with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) want to avoid a messy political situation at the start of the new Congress, which could put the defense budget and other federal spending priorities in limbo for months.

This dynamic may prove decisive in getting a budget deal by the end of December, even though conservatives led by Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) are pushing for a stopgap spending bill that would fund the government at current levels until Republicans take control of the House next year.

McConnell’s allies are speaking out against freezing federal spending levels until 2023, when they could be negotiated by the new House GOP majority, at a time when the Senate GOP leader is coming under heavy pressure from conservatives to do just that.

Scott, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee who challenged McConnell last month for the top Senate GOP leadership job, wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal Monday urging colleagues to reject an omnibus.

“Anyone supporting a bloated omnibus that spends taxpayer dollars on radical waste, like 87,000 IRS employees, has surrendered to massive debt and raging inflation, which are affecting every American family,” he wrote.

Some Senate Republicans worry that kicking spending decisions until next year could risk a legislative pileup in the House, and a potential standoff with Senate Democrats and President Biden with the threat of a government shutdown looming over it.

“There are those who believe that moving something this year takes one issue off the table, off the plate, next year that they’d have to deal with right away,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) about the reluctance among Senate Republicans about dumping a messy spending negotiation for fiscal 2023 onto the incoming House GOP majority.

“They’re going to, obviously, have their hands full. Any narrow majority, Democratic or Republican — as the Democrats found the last two years — creates a real challenge from a managing-the-institution standpoint. I don’t think a narrow Republican majority will be any different,” Thune added.

Asked for comment for this article, McCarthy’s office pointed to recent statements made by the House GOP leader.

McCarthy told reporters after meeting with Biden and fellow congressional leaders last week that he wanted to wrap up work on the omnibus spending bill before the new year but emphasized that Democrats would have to make concessions.

“What I explained to all them is that I can work with anyone who is willing to get our spending under control, to work to make America energy independent, to secure our borders,” he said. “[Continuing resolutions] are not where we want to be, but if we cannot get our work done now — the outgoing majority, if they don’t want to work with us — we can get this work done in January as well.”

However, Senate Republicans are skeptical that McCarthy and the rest of the House GOP leadership would be able to get a spending deal worked out in the first few weeks — or months — of next year given all the challenges they face organizing their new majority.

McCarthy hasn’t yet locked down the votes he needs to be elected Speaker, and there are growing questions about whether he will even lead the House GOP conference next year.

If he does emerge as Speaker, he likely will be weakened given the battle he will have fought with conservatives in his conference just to wield the gavel next year, Senate sources predict.

Senate Republicans say the prospect that a newly minted House Republican majority will be able to negotiate a spending package anytime soon is a fantasy and warn that could have serious consequences for military readiness and support for Ukraine in its war against Russia.

“The House with the new majority, they’re going to have to get organized. I think dumping this in their laps” is a “worse choice” than passing an omnibus this month, said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to the Senate Republican leadership team.

He predicted that could delay increases in military spending for months and create a legislative logjam at the start of the new Congress.

“They’re not going to be able to do this right away. It will take them months to get organized in order to pass a bill, so I think the lesser of evils is to pass an omnibus bill this year,” he said.

Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (Mo.), who served as House majority leader before being elected to the Senate, predicted that punting spending decisions into next year would create a train wreck in early 2023.

“I think the worst thing we could do to a newly formed Republican House is send them a [continuing resolution] into early in the year,” he said. “I just don’t think they’ll be ready for it — for good reasons, even if they were totally prepared and capable.

“This is something that takes quite a while to deal with, and it will be a mistake for them and us both if we make it,” warned Blunt, who is retiring at the end of this Congress.

A Senate Republican aide said it would be virtually impossible for McCarthy to negotiate a spending deal with Democrats early next year given how narrow his majority will be and how much pressure he is currently under from discontented House conservatives.

“I don’t think there is a word to describe how impossible it will be,” the aide said. “I think that everybody understands that we have to do an omnibus. I think the challenge is that Schumer thinks he has more leverage than he really does.”

The aide said Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is trying to take advantage of what he sees as Senate Republicans’ desperation to get an omnibus bill passed and is pushing to keep increases in nondefense discretionary spending on par with increases in defense spending and other concessions that are tough for Republicans to swallow.

“There’s only so much we can spend. He doesn’t have an unlimited blank check,” the aide said.

That’s why Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the retiring ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee who wants to pass an omnibus bill next month, is trying to keep expectations in check.

“McConnell and others, we’d like to get an omnibus if we can, but not at any cost,” he told reporters last week.

Tags House Freedom Caucus Kevin McCarthy Kevin McCarthy Mike Lee Mitch McConnell NRSC Rick Scott Rick Scott Ted Cruz

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