By Scott Wong and Mike Lillis - 05-31-17 06:00 AM EDT
Senior House appropriators are urging GOP leaders to "go ugly early" and pass a massive 2018 spending package before the August recess instead of waiting until the last minute and risk a government shutdown this fall.
The number of must-do items, including extending a popular children's health benefit program and reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, are piling up for September, and appropriators want to prevent a deadline crunch - and avoid another stopgap spending bill at Obama-era levels - by expediting the timeline for the spending bills.
"With the known time constraints we're facing, this is a new idea to make the government-funding process work," said Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), who chairs the Appropriations financial services subcommittee and has been making the case for passing an omnibus package before the summer recess.
"There is no question that this would be a Herculean task," Graves added. "But, if we succeed, we would create more space to address tax reform, financial reform, infrastructure investments and many other challenges while funding the government in a fiscally responsible way."
At the GOP's weekly policy conference last week, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) presented rank-and-file lawmakers with several scenarios for how the party could avert a shutdown on Oct. 1: try to pass the 12 appropriations bills one by one through regular order, though almost everyone agrees there's not enough time to get them all through the House and Senate; bundle some of the dozen appropriations bills together in "minibuses" and ship those packages to the Senate; or cut straight to the chase and negotiate a 2018 bipartisan funding deal, given the reality that Democratic votes will be needed to avert a fall shutdown.
Graves stepped to the microphone last week and offered a fourth option: get all 12 spending bills out of the Appropriations Committee, package them in a GOP omnibus bill and pass it on the House floor before Congress adjourns on July 28 for the monthlong summer recess.
Some in the closed-door meeting applauded the idea of Republicans firing off an opening salvo earlier in the process. Fellow Georgia GOP Reps. Barry Loudermilk and Doug Collins voiced support, as did Education Committee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), sources said.
Other Appropriations subcommittee chairmen, known as "cardinals" - including Reps. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) - have signaled they're open to the Graves plan.
"As a strategy, there is a lot of merit to what Tom is proposing: Let's have the fight in July and go home and message it in August," Cole said in a phone interview Tuesday.
However, Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) has not publicly weighed in. "The Chairman is committed to completing all 12 appropriations bills," said his spokeswoman, Jennifer Hing.
In recent years, Congress has pushed the annual spending debate right to the end of the fiscal calendar on Sept. 30, largely due to entrenched disagreements between the parties over the role and scope of the federal government. Those disputes have been only enflamed under President Trump.
Appropriations sources have described the Graves plan as "going ugly early." Rep. Ra l Labrador (R-Idaho), one of the leaders of the far-right Freedom Caucus, doesn't like that term but said he'd back the idea because it avoids the need for another continuing resolution and conservatives can insert policy riders in an omnibus bill.
"I think we should go pretty early. Instead of ugly, let's go pretty. Let's do it right," Labrador told The Hill. "Let's keep the promises we made to the American people. We can put a lot of our priorities in the appropriations bills."
Before moving on to their favored spending bills, though, Republicans must first pass a 2018 budget that sets the top-line spending levels - a process that's already months behind schedule. Budget Committee leaders have been hoping to release a proposal in the second week of June, with a markup to follow shortly after.
"We're working on it, and we're going to bring it out as soon as we get consensus and get all of our people together," Budget Chairwoman Diane Black (R-Tenn.) said last week.
Democrats on the panel are increasingly doubtful that the Republicans will stick to that calendar. They're citing both internal GOP divisions and the vocal criticisms many Republicans lobbed at Trump's budget, which slashed domestic programs nearly across the board, including many favored by Republicans.
"It just looks like they're in pretty much disarray as to what direction they want to go," Kentucky Rep. John Yarmuth, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, said as Congress was leaving for the Memorial Day recess.
"They obviously are not making much progress in putting anything together."
With that in mind, Yarmuth predicted Republicans would be forced to scrap any plans for major cuts and set next year's spending on a course similar to that established in the 2017 omnibus. And with filibuster power in the Senate, Democrats expect to have leverage.
"They're going to have to come hat in hand to us," Yarmuth said. "I can't imagine a scenario in which they don't have to get Democratic votes."
Those dynamics spell bad news for Republicans, like Labrador, who hope to attach policy riders to a summer omnibus. The resulting clash will pressure both sides to push the spending debate beyond the August recess.