Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is calculating whether he wants to strike a deal with Democrats on a year-end spending package before Republicans take control of the House in January.
The stakes are high for McConnell, who faces regular attacks from former President Trump and earlier this month survived the toughest challenge to his leadership of the Senate GOP after a bruising battle with National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott (Fla.).
McConnell signaled to colleagues before the election that he favored passing an omnibus spending package before the end of the year, but that was before Senate Republicans fell short of expectations on Election Day, fueling conservative calls for new GOP leadership.
Senate Republican sources say McConnell will want to hear from fellow GOP senators at lunch meetings this week before deciding whether to agree to an omnibus spending package, which would likely include tens of billions of dollars in military and economic aid for Ukraine — a top McConnell priority.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said there’s going to be a debate within the GOP conference this week over spending strategy and pointed out there are two factions, one favoring a deal with Democrats and another calling for a freeze on spending until Republicans take over the House.
“I think we’re probably having a lot of discussions about that this week,” Thune said. “I think our members are going to be … in different camps on whether or not to do an omni or to just do a [continuing resolution].”
Thune acknowledged that funding for Ukraine would have a tough time passing if attached to a stopgap spending bill.
“Boy, that would be hard to get it on a [continuing resolution] right now,” he said.
“Clearly we’ll see what the requests are, what the needs are,” he added. “We have a lot of members on our side who are very interested in trying to help any way we can. But that hill is getting steeper.”
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said Monday that he’s offered Republicans a top-line spending number, which would include defense and nondefense discretionary spending levels.
“I’ve offered a good number,” he said, dismissing the prospect of a stopgap funding measure that simply freezes federal spending at current levels.
“A continuing resolution doesn’t help anybody,” he said, noting that “we don’t have much time left” until government funding expires after Dec. 16.
Leahy and Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, said McConnell signaled before the election that he favored passing an omnibus spending bill before Christmas, instead of pushing decisions into 2023 and a new Congress.
“I think we ought to do our jobs,” Shelby told reporters in September. “I want to help Leahy best I can to meet our obligation.”
“I think McConnell is of that persuasion,” he added. “Some people want to kick [funding decisions] down the road.”
Leahy confirmed Monday that he also thought that McConnell wanted to get the omnibus passed in December, instead of punting it into next year, despite pressure from conservatives such as Scott and Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
“I’m not in their caucus, but I think Sen. Shelby and I had the same impression,” he said.
One of the strongest arguments that Shelby and other Republican members on the Appropriations Committee have for passing an omnibus spending bill is that it would help the Department of Defense plan in the face of growing threats from Russia and China.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wrote a letter to congressional leaders Monday arguing that a continuing resolution lasting into next year would hamstring military preparation and training.
“The CR costs us time as well as money, and money can’t buy back time, especially for lost training events,” Austin wrote, referring to the problems caused by passing a stopgap spending measure instead of an omnibus package.
“Under the CR, Congress prohibits the military from commencing new initiatives, such as those requested by our theater commanders in the Indo-Pacific and around the world or in support of service members and their families at home,” Austin wrote.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) hammered on the potential impact on national defense during a floor speech Monday.
He warned a stopgap spending measure “will not only cost our military billions every month, it will also freeze new investments in critical military infrastructure.”
“It will mean many staffing and personnel decisions will be put on hold,” he added. “When we see some of the advances some of our competitors — China and Russia — have made in military equipment, we can’t afford to sit still.”
The push for a longer-term stopgap spending measure to delay negotiations on the omnibus until Republicans control the House next year is being led by Scott, Lee and Cruz, who led the critiques of McConnell’s leadership during two intense closed-door meetings that GOP senators held after failing to win control of the Senate on Election Day.
The conservatives laid out their argument for postponing negotiations on spending priorities in a Fox News op-ed published in September.
They argued that if Republicans control a chamber of Congress, they can block efforts to fund the Biden administration’s plan to beef up IRS enforcement.
“Instead of funding thousands of new IRS officials to audit and harass Americans, we should spend that money to hire new border patrol agents and finally secure our borders,” they wrote.
“The worst move imaginable would be to gift the Democrats one last liberal spending spree in December as they leave power,” they wrote.
But not all conservatives think it would be smart strategy to punt major spending negotiations until next year, when Republicans will have a small majority in the House, making it likely the next Speaker will have to depend on Democrats to pass spending legislation through the lower chamber.
“If you go back to 2013, we had a Republican House — with a larger margin — and a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president and we employed the [government] shutdown as the leverage and we got absolutely nothing out of that,” said Grover Norquist, a prominent conservative activist and president of Americans for Tax Reform.
He said the negotiating leverage of House Republicans next year will depend largely on their ability to stay unified.
“If you’ve got 10 or 15 people that say, ‘I’d rather be on Newsmax than cut the budget,’ then what are we waiting for? Because you’re going to have to buy 10 Democrats’ vote,” he said.
Right now, 218 House Republicans have yet to unify behind House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) bid to become Speaker.