WASHINGTON – On one side of the Capitol, two senators have steered the debate over government funding mostly clear of partisan fights, creating a path for bills to pass with bipartisan momentum.
Steps away, on the House side of the building, things couldn’t be more different.
House Republicans, trying to win support from the far-right wing of the party, have loaded up their government funding packages with spending cuts and conservative policy priorities. Democrats have responded with ire, branding their GOP counterparts as extreme and bigoted, and are withdrawing support for the legislation.
The contrary approaches are not unusual for such fights in Congress. But the differences are especially stark this time, creating a gulf between the chambers that could prove difficult to bridge. The dynamic threatens to plunge the United States into yet another damaging government shutdown, potentially as soon as the end of September when last year's funding expires.
Leaders in both chambers are trying to project strength as they enter negotiations that will determine the fate of billions of dollars in government programs, military aid for Ukraine and emergency disaster recovery funds.
The Senate strategy is being led by the first female duo to hold the top leadership spots on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Susan Collins, R-Maine.
The two have worked for months to pull off a feat not seen in Congress in five years, crafting 12 separate funding bills through the so-called regular order process, which involves crafting legislation in open committee hearings. The goal is to avoid an outcome that rank-and-file lawmakers in both parties loathe: being forced to fund the government at year's end with a sprawling omnibus package, nearly sight unseen, after it emerges from closed-door negotiations.
“I heard from many members at the end of last year, Republicans and Democrats, that they don’t want this dysfunction,” Murray told The Associated Press. “They want the appropriations bill not to be some big conglomerate at the end of the year that nobody knows what’s in it.”
As Murray took the helm of the committee earlier this year, she and Collins began to build on their decades-old working relationship. Murray also met with the top Democrats and Republicans on each subcommittee and urged them to shield funding legislation from “poison pill” policy riders that would drive away the members of one party or the other.
Their effort was at first met with skepticism, Murray said. But as the Senate grinds toward votes on their funding bills, they have won plaudits from leadership in both parties.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called the appropriations work “a shining example of how things should work in Washington.” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has been supportive as well, saying Murray and Collins “have taken us in the right direction.”
Collins said she has urged her Republican colleagues, who are in the minority, to “understand that if they really believe in regular order, we need to proceed with these bills and start the amendment process and conclude the bills and send them on their way to the House.”
So far, Senate appropriations bills have made it out of the committee on large bipartisan votes, and the Senate this past week took a step toward a final vote on the first package of three spending bills with a 91-7 vote.
Thanks to the filibuster that forces a 60-vote threshold for passage of most legislation, the Senate has no choice but to work on a bipartisan basis when it comes to most major legislation. But the chamber is hardly immune to political brinkmanship. A few GOP senators allied with conservatives in the House are working to slow the Senate’s work on appropriations bills. The delay could give the House more time to advance its own, hard-line approach.
Still, the Senate's coordination on the bills only intensifies the pressure on House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who abandoned a plan to pass a defense funding bill — one of the 12 appropriations bills, and usually one of the least controversial — after members of the House Freedom Caucus refused to support it advancing to a vote on the House floor.
“You’re stronger when you have one House and you can advocate for the policies you want and you’ve passed that,” McCarthy, R-Calif., said Wednesday, shortly after he was forced to call off the vote.
The top lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee, Reps. Kay Granger of Texas, R-Texas, and Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., have had a good working relationship, but their bills are shaped by larger forces in the House. That means all eyes are on McCarthy as he tries to win support from the conservative wing of his own conference.
To win the speaker's gavel, McCarthy committed to returning the appropriations process to regular order. He reiterated that approach this week saying, “The American public wins in this — that they actually see the bills.”
But with a thin majority and a shaky hold on his leadership position, McCarthy has allowed House Republicans to craft packages that cut below the agreement he struck in May with President Joe Biden to suspend the nation's borrowing limit. They have also loaded the House's appropriations bills with conservative policy wins, ensuring Democratic opposition.
McCarthy has also ratcheted up the political divide in the House by directing an impeachment inquiry into Biden — a move that the right-wing of his conference has been demanding for months.
“House Republicans have made clear that they are determined to shut down the government and try to jam their extreme right-wing ideology down the throats of the American people,” said House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York.
Republican appropriators have used their funding bills to engage in charged partisan fights, teeing up cuts to programs that benefit LGBTQ people, funding for the Department of Defense's policy of facilitating travel for service members to receive abortions and defunding offices and positions that Republicans see as liberal.
Committee hearings often grew tense over the summer as Democrats accused Republicans of betraying future generations by cutting money for environmental protections and climate programs. Republicans criticized current spending levels as a betrayal of their children and grandchildren because it imperils the future of Social Security and Medicare.
Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a senior Republican, dismissed the House ruckus as “the chaos of democracy.”
“We’re actually having a real legislative debate over here, a pretty robust discussion and some pretty hardball politics,” he said.
But a government shutdown is approaching rapidly, leaving House Republicans little time to form an appropriations plan or pass a short-term measure that would give them more time to negotiate a funding deal.
McCarthy told a closed-door House GOP meeting on Thursday that he would keep the House in session longer than scheduled if necessary, according to lawmakers in attendance.
Exiting the meeting, Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., said McCarthy's message was stark: “We will be losers if we get a shutdown.”