Senate Republicans are battling over their year-end spending strategy — a second chapter of a brawl between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and rebellious conservatives that began after Election Day.
McConnell on Tuesday made his opinion publicly clear in the fight, saying there was “widespread agreement” among himself, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Democratic leaders on the need to pass an omnibus spending bill.
That puts him on a collision course with National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), who want to freeze government spending until Republicans take control of the House in January.
“I think it makes absolutely no sense for a lame-duck Congress to pass Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer’s appropriations bills,” Cruz said Tuesday, referring to Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
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“We’re getting ready to have a Republican Congress and that Republican Congress ought to set its priorities for spending, and if a handful of Senate Republicans decide their outgoing act is to rubber-stamp Nancy Pelosi’s spending priorities, that would be a gross abdication of responsibility and also an affront to the voters who just voted to give Republicans a majority in the House,” he added.
Cruz and other conservatives argue that the next Republican Speaker, who is expected to be McCarthy, could use his leverage to block funding for beefed up IRS enforcement, a key provision of the Inflation Reduction Act, which passed Congress by party-line votes.
The Texas senator called funding for an estimated 87,000 new IRS agents a “major issue.”
The question of whether to pass an omnibus package, which would increase spending for defense and nondefense programs, giving federal departments and agencies certainty for how to budget next year, was discussed at Tuesday’s Senate Republican Conference lunch.
GOP senators say they expect the discussion to heat up on Wednesday at the Senate Republican Steering Committee lunch.
“We had a robust discussion at lunch, and this will continue in the coming weeks over the way to end the session with regard to government spending,” McConnell told reporters after the Tuesday conference meeting.
“It’s a difficult choice, frankly,” McConnell acknowledged. “If you’re interested in reducing spending, probably the best way to do that would be a one-year [continuing resolution].”
“If, on the other hand, you’re concerned about the defense of our country and the funding of the Ukraine war, you’re somewhat hesitant to go in that direction,” he said.
“I think the way forward is to continue to discuss and see what’s in the best interest of the country, see how many people we can bring together, people on both sides of the aisle,” he added.
Conservatives are leaning hard on McConnell, hoping to keep the pressure on their leader after a bruising two-day Senate Republican leadership race right before Thanksgiving, when senators including Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called for a change at the top of their conference.
McConnell allies, including Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is set to become the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee next year, are pressing for Congress to pass an omnibus in the lame-duck session.
“I certainly feel very strongly that we need to have an omnibus rather than another [continuing resolution],” Collins said. “If we do another CR, it would be extremely difficult for the Department of Defense and other departments as well.”
“The Department of Defense, to the best of my knowledge, has never had a full-year CR before,” she said.
Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) also expressed support for passing an omnibus package.
But Rounds warned he doesn’t want to see it get loaded down with too many other legislative provisions, such as an extra $10 billion in funding the administration is asking for COVID-19 vaccines and therapies. Republicans argue there’s still enough unspent COVID relief funding to cover these programs.
Other Republicans are staying neutral on the question of whether to pass an omnibus or punt spending decisions into next year with a stopgap spending measure that would last into January or February.
“We’re having discussions about that right now and nothing’s been decided,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told The Hill leaving the luncheon on Tuesday. “I think there are arguments on both sides.”
Tensions have been high in the Senate Republican Conference since the party fell short of expectations in this month’s midterm elections.
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told reporters ahead of the meeting that Democrats “seem to always stay in lockstep,” while Republicans have trouble remaining unified in votes.
“We generally end up going with them, and they get 10 to 12 of us on almost anything, whether it’s policy or something to do with spending,” Braun said, while raising the question: “In the last 50 years, where have we drug 15 Democrats along with a Republican-led bill?”
Braun also said he thinks the party was “outmaneuvered” in the last election cycle. He suggested that Republicans should start “at least discussing other ideas, other leadership, competition and choice.”
Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, said he thinks there “are reasons that the leaders of both sides should want to see this done really before the new Congress starts.”
“Even if they think there’s merit to the new Republican House being able to deal with this immediately, that’s a pretty big lift for a brand new Congress,” said Blunt, who is retiring and serves on the Appropriations panel.
Some senators think Congress will at least pass another short-term continuing resolution to keep the government funded beyond Dec. 16, when the current funding law is due to expire. That would give Congress until Dec. 23 to wrap up work on the omnibus package.
McConnell noted on Tuesday that “significant hurdles” remain in the negotiations with Democrats and identified Democratic requests for big increases in nondefense discretionary spending as a “sticking point.”
More than a dozen Republicans signed on to a letter earlier this year pressing for their colleagues to reject any government funding deal that fails to delay major funding decisions until the next Congress.
But Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), a member of GOP leadership who is among the signatories on that letter, told The Hill on Tuesday that “it’s hard to say” whether Congress will pass an omnibus next month.