republican squabbling heats up over spending and strategy

WASHINGTON ― Congressional Republicans on both sides of the Capitol are quarreling over federal spending and long-term strategy as Congress rushes to pass a massive government funding bill before leaving town for the holidays.

The last-minute legislative frenzy, driven by a bipartisan failure to pass budget bills on time, is flaring tensions between the GOP’s centrist and conservative wings as lawmakers work to draft a huge package to fund the government for fiscal year 2023.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the top House Republican, is taking a hard line against the bill and urging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) not to make a deal with Democrats.

McCarthy said Wednesday that Congress should continue current funding levels into the new year so that a Republican-led House of Representatives gets a chance to weigh in on the big omnibus bill.

“We’re 20 days before the new members are being sworn in. We’ve got two members leading appropriations in the Senate who will no longer be here or be able to be held accountable to the constituents,” McCarthy said at a press conference. “They should not jam us now.”

McCarthy is likely trying to look tough so his colleagues elect him speaker next month, but he would probably rather avoid a spending fight in January since a sizable number of far-right House Republicans would oppose any government funding bill. And unless McCarthy actually wants the government to shut down, he would have to pass the measure with Democratic votes ― which would enrage the right-wingers and imperil his speakership.

In the Senate, McConnell is facing resistance from his own right flank over the massive spending bill. The legislation, which he has called “broadly appealing,” is likely to include many GOP priorities, including a boost to defense spending and additional aid to Ukraine.

A small group of conservatives is railing against the size of the bill and the way it is being advanced in Congress ― in secrecy, with little input from rank-and-file members, and just days before a Christmas deadline to fund the government. The agreed price tag of the bill hasn’t yet been made public, though it is expected to total over $1.5 trillion.

“Merry Christmas, America. The Democrats and big government Republicans will be offering you a Christmas tree. A Christmas tree in Washington is a bill that has something on it for everyone,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said in a press conference on Wednesday. “You won’t know what it is until you get it. You won’t be able to read it until it’s done.”

Senate Republicans held a special conference meeting this week at the request of the conservatives to air grievances about the budget process and call for a less-consolidated decision-making process. Their complaints were an indirect shot at the way McConnell runs the conference, and some of the senators who called for the meeting voted against him as their leader in a tense internal election last month.

“It was really more about why are we in the week before Christmas sitting not even knowing what this [bill] is going to look like,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) told HuffPost.

Complaints about “regular order” ― passing legislation via committee rather than leaders deciding on it behind closed doors ― are a regular feature of the modern Senate, where things typically happen only by “unanimous consent or exhaustion,” as retiring Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) lamented in his farewell speech last week.

Rising congressional dysfunction has resulted in a kick-the-can approach to budgeting, with lawmakers regularly missing key deadlines and relying on holidays at the end of the year, when just about everyone wants to go home, to induce bipartisan cooperation to make a deal. The system hasn’t always worked. In 2018, the federal government shut down for over a month amid a dispute over immigration. Another funding lapse occurred in 2013 after Republicans demanded to defund the Affordable Care Act.

At the moment, Congress is operating on an extremely tight timeline. Any senator could derail the passage of the spending bill, threatening a shutdown.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the veteran Republican appropriator who is negotiating the spending package, didn’t seem too surprised by McCarthy’s opposition to his bill.

“He’s running for speaker, he’s supposed to say that,” Shelby said Wednesday.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), one of several far-right House Republicans who has said he would oppose any government funding bill unless Democrats meet a laundry list of demands, likened the spending process to desecrating the American flag and aiming an obscene gesture at America.

“So the American people, you need to understand what the people’s House is doing to you today: standing on the steps of the Capitol, sticking their middle finger up at you,” Roy said on the House floor Wednesday.

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