GOP Unity With Trump Faces Test Over Spending Early Next Year

  • Republican spending priorities many not line up with Trump’s
  • Stopgap funding bill creates risk of showdown in April 2017

Congress just navigated through the threat of a U.S. government shutdown, but Republicans may have set themselves up for an even bigger showdown next year at the start of Donald Trump’s presidency.

The Senate on Friday cleared 63 to 36 a stopgap spending measure to fund the government through April 28, averting a shutdown but putting off a long list of decisions on bills to finance the rest of the fiscal year through October.

Tom Cole

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

That lawmakers are heading toward a potentially time-consuming fight over spending in the spring that could test the limits of newfound Republican unity with Trump and eat up valuable time, delaying other legislative priorities.

"I am sorry I don’t think this was a very smart decision and I don’t think this will look very smart in April," said Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole, chairman of the House panel in charge of health-care spending.

The incoming Trump administration and Congress have a huge pileup of tasks early next year, including stocking a Cabinet, filling a Supreme Court vacancy, repealing Obamacare and reversing a slew of regulations issued by the outgoing Obama administration in its final months. Adding the need to fund the entire federal government makes all of those objectives even more difficult.

‘Heavy Lift’

Lawmakers also worry that new executive branch officials may not be able to properly finesse a spending bill fight.

"There will be plenty of things for them to do. This will be a heavy lift," outgoing House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky said. He said appropriators need to begin negotiating the spending bills in early January because meeting the April deadline will be "extremely difficult."

Trump hasn’t made clear whether he wants to pick an early fight with Democrats over cutting social spending and boosting the military ahead of the spending deadline. Either way, fights over environmental and financial regulations will be intense, while Republicans will also push to defund Planned Parenthood.

Even though Republicans will control both chambers of Congress and the White House, they still need Democratic votes to pass spending bills. In the Senate, where 60 votes are required to advance legislation, Republicans are expected to hold only 52 seats. And in the House, while they have a clear majority, some Republicans are hesitant to support sweeping omnibus measures.

"I don’t think they have a very clear idea of how difficult this is going to make things for them or how much time it is going to take up in Congress," Cole said.

Military Boost

Trump, on Tuesday in North Carolina, called for lifting legislative caps on Pentagon spending but didn’t say when or how he would attempt to do that.

Democrats want any military increase to be matched by boosts in non-defense spending, and they could block measures to try to get their way.

North Dakota Representative Kevin Cramer, an early Trump supporter closely connected to the transition team, said the incoming administration wanted Congress to pass a stopgap so it could put its stamp on the next spending bills. That could mean using them to quickly end environmental regulations that would be too time-consuming to reverse through the federal rulemaking process, he said.

"That is one more vehicle to straighten out a few things," Cramer said. "I know some of those Democratic senators who are up in 2018 who are going to be a lot more cooperative than they have been lately."

‘Most Joyful Period’

Other conservative members said they see the April 28 deadline as offering a chance to have a major fight over the level of government spending.

"In many ways it’s the most joyful period of time I’ve had in my time in Congress. It’s going to be really hard things and really tough votes and that’s what we are here for," said Arizona Republican David Schweikert, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

These high hopes are exactly what makes the deadline dangerous, warned centrist Republican Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, a member of the Appropriations Committee.

He said Republicans hoping to end regulations in the next spending bill will alienate Democrats who will be needed because many conservatives won’t vote for any catch-all omnibus bill that doesn’t make deep spending cuts.

"You are not going to get much Democratic cooperation in the new year and you have Republicans who would not vote for omnibuses in December; they sure as hell won’t vote for one in April, May or June," Dent said.

House conservatives such as Iowa’s Steve King are already demanding that the next round of spending bills immediately cut $30 billion in domestic spending. Republican centrists consider the overall levels for social spending largely settled while wanting the military increased.

Dent said the spending bill vote will be a precursor to a debt-ceiling vote where the new administration will find out they need Democrats to get bills passed, because some Republicans refuse to vote for most debt or spending bills.

"The very non-ideological Donald Trump will bump up against some very ideological members of our conference," he said.

Negotiations Underway

To get the spending bills done, some Republican lawmakers said the best course of action would be for Trump to let congressional leaders handle the negotiations themselves.

"I think the bills are pretty much done now on both sides," said Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, a senior appropriator who advocated passing all 11 remaining spending bills this month. He acknowledged that Republicans don’t know if Trump will want to rewrite spending allocations in the bills that have already been negotiated.

"The best way for them to handle it is to trust Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, and there is no reason for them not to," Cramer said.

Still, allowing House Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell to handle things may not guarantee that Congress won’t stumble into another standoff like the one that led to a 16-day partial shutdown in 2013. Dent predicted such a scenario would ultimately lead to passage of a plan keeping the government funded at current levels through October.

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