GOP eyeing vote to fund the government through March 23

GOP eyeing vote to fund the government through March 23
© Greg Nash

House lawmakers will likely consider legislation early next week to keep the government open through about March 23, according to two sources familiar with the situation, though the plan has not been finalized.

The thinking is that a six-week funding patch would give lawmakers enough time to reach a deal on immigration, which would then unlock the budget caps deal that is needed to write a massive omnibus spending bill for the rest of the fiscal year.

Congress may end up voting on the spending measure as early as Tuesday because of a House Democratic retreat planned for next Wednesday.

“What I’ve heard is later March, sometime around the 23rd, so enough time to hopefully come to a deal to actually get an omnibus,” said one GOP lawmaker. “I think they want to give themselves some breathing room, but no final decisions have been made.”

But Republican leaders have still not finalized a broader strategy to avoid another government shutdown when current funding expires on Feb. 8, though lawmakers dismissed concerns that the government would close down again. 

Key details like the length and contents of the next funding bill were still under discussion as of Thursday, Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAmash: Trump incorrect in claiming Congress didn't subpoena Obama officials Democrats hit Scalia over LGBTQ rights Three-way clash set to dominate Democratic debate MORE (R-Wis.) told reporters at the annual GOP retreat in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. 

It’s still unclear how much support the short-term funding patch — which would be the fifth since September — will have from the House GOP conference, where defense hawks and conservatives have grown increasingly frustrated with the cycle of passing continuing resolutions (CR).

The far-right House Freedom Caucus has already fired a warning shot to leadership that they may not support the next funding bill.

“I don't see the probability of the Freedom Caucus supporting a fifth CR without substantial changes by Feb. 8, unless we see dramatic changes,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsMulvaney faces uncertain future after public gaffes Testimony from GOP diplomat complicates Trump defense Obama: Cummings showed us 'the importance of checks and balances' MORE (R-N.C.) told reporters Thursday. 

After a three-day government shutdown last month, sparked by a bitter fight over immigration, Democrats agreed to a funding bill that keeps the government open through Feb. 8. 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpGraham to introduce resolution condemning House impeachment inquiry Support for impeachment inches up in poll Fox News's Bret Baier calls Trump's attacks on media 'a problem' MORE gave Congress until March 5 to come up with a permanent legal fix for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.

But with Congress nowhere closer to a deal on budget caps or immigration, lawmakers will have to pass yet another short-term funding patch next week. 

Leadership is still deciding whether to attach any sweeteners to the next CR in a bid to attract more support. One option under consideration, according to Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeScalise, Cole introduce resolution to change rules on impeachment Fight over Trump's wall raises odds of 'continuous' stopgap measures Senate spending talks go off the rails as soon as they begin MORE (R-Okla.), is including money for community health centers.

“There’s certainly some discussion about that. A lot of us would like to do community health centers, Medicare extenders, things like the special diabetes program for Native American nations that is critical,” said Cole, who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on labor and health and human services. “I think it would make it much more attractive to Democrats.” 

Senate Democrats, who rejected a stopgap funding bill last month and sparked a government shutdown, may be willing to go along with the next CR as long as there are no poison pills. They received assurances from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that he would put immigration and border security legislation on the floor if a deal is not reached by Feb. 8.

But GOP leadership could run into problems within its own party when it comes to the CR. Many rank-and-file House Republicans are upset that they keep backing CRs without ever seeing a different end result.

The Freedom Caucus and defense hawks are pushing hard for leadership to include a full year of defense funding on the next short-term spending patch — an idea that has gone nowhere in the past, partly because it’s been considered dead-on-arrival in the Senate.

But Republicans think they may have more leverage now, given that Senate Democrats are expected to be less willing to use shutdown tactics a second time around.

“I don’t think we’ll see a threat [of a] government shutdown again. … One of my favorite old Kentucky country sayings is 'there’s no education in the second kick of a mule,' and so I think there will be a new level of seriousness here trying to resolve these issues,” McConnell told reporters at the Republican retreat.

A new Treasury Department report this week warning that Congress will need to raise the debt ceiling earlier than expected, in early March, could also impact leadership’s plan for the CR. 

The preference has been to attach debt ceiling legislation to an omnibus spending bill, but the new report could heighten the sense of urgency to resolve the issue sooner. 

“The CR is obviously one potential vehicle for the debt ceiling, but I think they would like to put that on an omnibus,” Cole said. 

Some Republicans, however, are insisting that any debt ceiling legislation be paired with spending reforms. That pairing could face opposition from Democrats.

“I’ve had conversations as recently as yesterday with Director Mulvaney and as recent as last week with Secretary Mnuchin on the debt ceiling, on how we can effectively make some real reforms in that area,” Meadows said Thursday, referring to White House budget director Mick Mulvaney and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin

“Based on those initial conversations, a number of Freedom Caucus members could potentially support those efforts,” he added.

- Alexander Bolton contributed.