House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has often had a mantra for his conference. He wants decision making to come from the bottom up.
So on Friday morning when the Republican conference met behind closed doors in the basement of the Capitol to hash out a plan to fund the government after the Sept. 30 deadline, leadership was prepared.
Instead of just a small group of the loudest, most conservative wing of the conference rising to argue for their preferred path forward – a longer term continuing resolution that would push the funding process into March when there is a new president–dozens of members who supported a short-term CR that would go to December stood to make their case, according to accounts from those in the room.
An aide who was in attendance described the situation as a bit of an anomaly. The aide said instead of just Freedom Caucus members rising to speak while everyone else remained silent, about 50 members voiced their support for the shorter term CR that would run into December.
The plan being hatched now would be to pass a continuing resolution until December along with the potential to attach legislation to fight Zika as well as the military construction appropriations bill. Then, when Congress returned after the election, leadership promises that members will be able to work on so-called “mini-buses,” a collection of appropriations bills cobbled together but less expansive than the typical omnibus bill. The dreadfully named “minibus” idea had a fair bit of positive reception from members emerging from the meeting.
Freedom Caucus members left the meeting, however, blasting it as a solution.
“The entire hour and a half is premised on the assumption that something is going to change,” said Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA). “If I thought the minibus would ultimately provide a solution, than I would be in favor of it, but I don’t think it is going to happen because we are 0 for 72 [on Appropriations bills.]”
Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) who stood in the meeting to fight for the longer term CR, told TPM that he was “not very” comfortable with the minibus idea coming from leadership, but that “I don’t have any comment right now.”
Another Republican hardliner who is not in the Freedom Caucus, but supported the idea of a longer term CR, told TPM that Friday’s gathering “was the most depressing conference I’ve ever been to.”
For years, funding showdowns in Congress have been predicated on the same awkward dance. There is a clear and sometimes singular option on how to keep the government open. Yet, the Freedom Caucus and other conservatives hash out some demand that President Barack Obama and the Democrats will never sign off on – to defund Obamacare or defund the president’s executive action on immigration. Under former Speaker John Boehner’s leadership, the conference would follow the Freedom Caucus to the brink even if that meant tumbling over a cliff and into a government shut down.
Friday’s meeting, however, was different. One member who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the planning that went into the meeting said he was personally approached by someone in leadership to stand up and publicly support the shorter term CR, which he was already on the record supporting. Then, he went on to tap five or six other members who might also be willing to stand and make their cases. Then they were asked to tap others. What resulted was a meeting in which the majority didn’t sit silently the way they sometimes have in the past.
“A lot of members don’t like to stand up in there because they are afraid it is going to be public,” the member said, in an era when primary challengers are not uncommon. “We don’t do this as often as we should but every once in a while we will pick an issue and stand up. I think that the motivating factor now is that most members don’t want any drama between now and the end of the month.”
Republican members acknowledged the plan hatched Friday was far from optimal, but many said it was the best on the table.
“A short term CR in the host of bad options is the best because it gives us an opportunity … to come back and talk about this in lame duck,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL). “It gives us a shot at being able to get back to some sort of regular order and maybe even get a minibus or two.”
Meanwhile, the Senate has already spoken. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced this week that the Senate will pass a short-term CR through Dec. 9. If Republicans in the House continue to fight over the best path forward, they risk being jammed as the Senate skips town.
“If the House dithers, if we sit around and debate what we are going to do ad nauseam then the Senate will simply jam us. We are going to have to eat whatever they send us so we can have these debates, these circular firing squad discussions until the cows come home, but we are going to end up eating what the Senate sends us,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA). “Our leadership has to learn to stop taking advice from people who are not going to vote for the bills anyway.”
Of course, even the minibus idea could backfire in the lame duck session. Congress has already struggled to pass the individual appropriations bills and all a minibus is multiple appropriations bills jammed together into one.
When asked how they were any different, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart didn’t try and spin.
“They aren’t. Again, minibuses are essentially appropriations bills but instead of one at a time, two or three at a time so there isn’t a lot of difference there,” he said.