Government funding bills not ‘home runs’, House Speaker Johnson says, but include GOP policies

Congressional leaders are preparing to force government funding legislation worth $1.7 trillion into law next week as the federal government staggers toward yet another shutdown deadline.

Unless Congress acts, about 20 percent of the federal government’s domestic operations would shut down on March 2 — giving lawmakers just a few days to avert a partial closure. The debate is part of a larger saga on Capitol Hill over federal spending, on issues that include government shutdowns as well as support for Ukraine and Israel.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (La.) told members of his Republican conference Friday night that some elements of the spending bills lawmakers will consider are “not home runs and grand slams,” according to a partial transcript of the GOP conference call obtained by The Washington Post, but carried plenty of wins on policy and spending cuts with which the GOP should be pleased.

“I don’t think anybody on this call thinks that we’re going to be able to use the appropriations process to fundamentally remake major areas of policy,” Johnson said. “If you’re expecting a lot of home runs and grand slams here, I admit you’ll be disappointed. But we will be able to secure a number of policy victories, both in bill text and report language, or other provisions and cuts that severely undermine the [Biden] administration’s programs and objectives. These bills will be littered with singles and doubles that we should be proud of, especially in our small majority.”

Not all Republicans were pleased with the outcome. “We are not winning,” said one person familiar with the call, who, like others in this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. Johnson did not discuss specific policy provisions on the call, multiple people said.

Multiple people familiar with House and Senate negotiations said leaders were nearing an agreement on legislation to fund the departments of Agriculture, Energy, Veterans Affairs, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development. Spending authority for those agencies is set to expire next weekend. The people spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss fragile negotiations.

Funding for the remaining 80 percent of the federal government — including the departments of Commerce, Justice, State, Defense, Homeland Security, Interior, Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services — expires on March 9, but lawmakers may need more time to piece together legislation for those agencies, the people said.

“We have a serious issue with the clock,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), one of the chief House negotiators, told The Post on Friday. “We’ve been given basically no time. But within that, we are hustling through it. My team has been working around-the-clock, literally around-the-clock. I mean, trading papers at 2 in the morning.”

Congressional leaders are expected to consider a stopgap funding bill — called a continuing resolution, or CR — to maintain the budgets of those agencies at current spending levels until mid-March, the people added. It would be the fourth such law passed since Sept. 30, when the last fiscal year ended.

Congress funds the government through 12 spending bills, called appropriations. The funding that expires on March 2 represents four of those bills.

Diaz-Balart said that if the House and Senate were able to approve funds for those agencies, and negotiations on the rest continue to advance at a steady pace, there was a possibility the other deliberations could also be finalized. He declined to answer questions about specific policy priorities.

All the plans, though, are tenuous at best. One person familiar with the negotiations said Republicans were bracing for a social media post or statement from former president Donald Trump that could derail the spending agreements — just as Trump did to kill a Senate immigration compromise only weeks ago.

Other Republicans are eyeing the relationship between Johnson and the archconservative House Freedom Caucus, a band of GOP rebels who have called on the speaker to shut down the government unless he can win spending cuts or hard-right policy provisions, called “riders” because they ride along in often unrelated legislation.

The Freedom Caucus on Tuesday wrote to Johnson with a list of 21 rider demands, including policies to eliminate Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’s salary, block key components of President Biden’s climate agenda and cut off funding for the World Health Organization and several U.N. relief agencies.

The group has also blocked procedural votes on the House floor to protest what members consider excessive government spending. That has required Johnson to lean instead on the House’s Democratic minority to move legislation, including two previous stopgap government funding measures — further upsetting the hard-right caucus.

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Freedom Caucus members say they would prefer Congress pass a year-long continuing resolution, which would trigger automatic across-the-board spending cuts that would take effect in May.

Under those cuts, called sequestration, every domestic federal program — save for Social Security, Medicare, veterans’ and debt payments — would face a 7 to 10 percent budget cut. The speaker should use that threat, Freedom Caucus members argue, to extract steeper spending cuts from Democrats in the appropriations bills.

“If the Democrats know, and they do, that we will not risk a government shutdown, then all they have to do is say no to whatever we ask for, and then we’re going to surrender, because we won’t suffer government shutdown. That is the bottom line,” Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), chair of the Freedom Caucus, told The Post. “The only leverage you have when you only control one house is to refuse to make a deal and to refuse to fund the government under the conditions at which the Democrats are demanding that you fund it. Don’t give Biden the money for the policies that you disagree with. And we’re not willing to do that, apparently.”

Johnson and GOP defense hawks in the House have rejected that approach because sequestration would not exempt defense spending.

A spokesperson for Johnson said in a statement that the speaker “has held regular meetings with members, including appropriators and House Freedom Caucus members, on the status of [the appropriations bills].”

In January, Johnson made the policy riders a priority for House negotiators after he agreed to a top-line spending amount with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) that some conservatives said was too high. But negotiators have jettisoned most of those proposals, the people familiar with the talks said, because many were too inflammatory to garner support from House Democrats. They would also surely perish in the Democratic-controlled Senate, which has to adopt the spending measures as well.

Senate Democrats on Friday also pressured Johnson to consider additional spending legislation to fund emergency assistance for Ukraine. The upper chamber this month passed a $95 billion defense spending bill that included money for Ukraine, Israel and other U.S. allies.

The speaker rejected that legislation, favoring instead an approach that splits Ukraine funding from other aid, or pairs it with harsh Trump-era immigration policies.

“Speaker Johnson, come to Ukraine,” Schumer said Friday at a news conference in Lviv, Ukraine, alongside the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. “See what we saw, witness what we’ve witnessed, and we’re confident that if you did that, you would understand how important it is to have this aid.”

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