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Congress just passed a spending bill that almost half the GOP hates

Capitol Hill Re-Groups One Day After Surprise In Speaker's Race
The Freedom Caucus isn’t happy.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Congress has averted a government shutdown, passing a $1 trillion spending bill — but this wasn’t a Republican-led push.

Even with Republicans in charge of the White House and Congress, it was Democratic support that got the spending bill over the finish line, and it’s rubbing many Republicans the wrong way.

“Just go right down the list issue after issue — it’s nothing,” Virginia Rep. Dave Brat, a conservative member, said, lamenting the contents of the omnibus spending bill. “The wall, the Middle East immigration stuff, H-2B visas, Planned Parenthood, EPA, military not as much as Trump wanted, and I’m just getting started. It goes on and on and on — sanctuary cities funded — it’s just like, really?”

Brat is not alone in calling the funding package a loss for the majority party. More than 100 Republicans voted against it in the House (nearly half the conference), and the bill lost 19 votes in the Senate as well.

"I think the Democrats cleaned our clock,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told reporters. “This was not winning from the Republican point of view." Others, not willing to go so far as to call the deal an outright loss, have been simply shying away from calling it a “win.”

Congress reached the bipartisan deal on government spending earlier this week, just in time for the May 5 government shutdown deadline. By most measures, it seems to be a huge win for Democrats, who used their threat of a filibuster in the Senate to get their way on spending. The bill doesn’t include any money for a wall on the US-Mexico border, nor does it cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood. There are enough increases to military spending and border security funding for Republicans to claim small wins. Overall, however, the bill is a far cry from the “tough on spending,” small-government platforms most Republicans have spend their careers campaigning on.

It is further proof that the party that now controls the presidency and both chambers of Congress is in a bind when it comes to government spending.

“We won the House, the Senate, and the White House democratically — we won,” Brat said. “So when [Senate Minority Leader Chuck] Schumer is grinning like the Cheshire Cat, you got a problem.”

Republicans are stuck in a lose-lose situation — and that’s not going to change

Bipartisan spending deals will always lose support on both flanks of the parties, but this omnibus package was particularly hard to swallow for Republicans. It both didn’t adhere to the Republican small-government ideal and didn’t fund Trump’s core agenda.

“I don’t see it as a win for conservatives; the hallmark things that most of us ran on are conspicuously absent,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry. “We are simply maintaining the current position. That’s not a win.”

It’s proven to be a bad look for Republicans, and the optics are only going to get more difficult for the GOP.

In 2013, Democrats only had control of the White House and a narrow majority in the Senate. When the government shut down, it was easier for Democrats to pin the blame on the Republicans.

Now, Democrats in the Senate have the power of a filibuster, which has made the spending bill look like something out of the Obama era. But in the eyes of the American people, Republicans have control of the White House and Congress, making both a Democrat-friendly spending package and the alternative, a government shutdown, huge risks politically. Ironically, gaining more power across two branches of government has lost Republicans some leverage in pushing President Trump’s agenda through a budget deal.

And Trump isn’t helping. On Monday, clearly angered by the barrage of headlines declaring this 2017 spending bill a huge win for Democrats, he advocated for a government shutdown in September, when Congress has a deadline to pass a 2018 spending bill. It makes it hard to say a shutdown is Democrats’ fault when you have a tweet from the president calling a shutdown a “fix.”

Republican leadership was seemingly aware of this lose-lose situation this time around, an explanation for why they said a “shutdown is not on the table” from the outset. But Brat said that was their first mistake.

“Look at Trump’s foreign policy — the major thing he says is don’t tell your enemy what you are going to do,” he said. “Now, the Democrats are not our enemy — they just happen to be wrong on most issues — but you don’t say we are not going to shut down two months in advance because otherwise you are telling them, ‘Hello, we are not going to fight on anything.’”

Either way, the politics is not going to change by September.

“Does this make the 2018 budget much more difficult and much more contentious in its debate? I think the answer is yes,” Rep. Mark Meadows, the conservative chair of the House Freedom Caucus, said. “It doesn’t fulfill the president’s agenda, and a lot of Americans would like for us to be a little bit more aggressive in terms of our spending priorities in supporting the president.”

Conservatives don’t seem to have a viable solution to this

It’s clear conservatives are struggling to come up with a viable way to get more wins in spending. Meadows said Republican leadership should be more open to walking away from a deal — in other words, they should be more open to allowing a shutdown. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), a man known for liking a good congressional fight, agreed.

Conservatives are also emphasizing the importance of not leaving negotiations to the last minute — which is Congress’s traditions with spending deals.

“We feel like the best way to take this is to take a proactive stance,” Rep. Mark Walker, who chairs the Republican Study Committee, said. “We are not going to wait until September to deal with this.”

But it’s not apparent that playing chicken with a government shutdown and spending more time negotiating would give Republicans more wins, seeing as Democrats will have the same leverage in September.

The Senate has the power to change this calculus. Conservatives in the House say Mitch McConnell should end the filibuster on spending bills, an idea Trump also implied earlier in the week. While not unprecedented — the Senate already changed the rules over Supreme Court nominations this year — it seems unlikely with appropriations, which have long been bipartisan.

There’s also an almost too-hopeful suggestion from Brat who said appropriators should simply emphasize that Republicans democratically won power in all branches of government to win more of their agenda items.

“If you talk to a third-grade kid and you said if you own the House, the Senate, and White House, who do you think in a democracy should get to run things for the most part? Should you negotiate?” Brat said. “I have the House and the Senate and the Supreme Court and the White House. So then, okay, let’s compromise, so Democrats you get one thing, but we get 10.”

“That’s the way it should work,” he added.

Unsurprisingly, the Democrats were amused by the notion: “Turning to third-graders to do their negotiating isn’t a bad idea for Rep. Brat and the rest of the Freedom Caucus, given how this round turned out for them,” a senior Senate Democratic aide said in response.

With a fractured Republican Party on health care, this might be a way forward on other issues

The bottom line is that this spending bill has passed the House and the Senate, even without Republicans on board. The president has implied that he will sign the bill and look toward 2018 to make a stronger push for his agenda.

For some Republicans, there is an understanding that this is how budget negotiations go down in Congress.

“This is a classic bipartisan compromise,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) said, himself happy with some of the provisions in the bill, like increased funding for the National Institutes of Health. Ironically, Trump’s 2018 budget proposal looks to slash NIH funding. Even some conservatives unhappy with the deal agree there are some positives. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) cited the funding for NASA as a win (there’s a NASA base in his district).

With so much infighting among Republicans on health care, Cole sees this deal as a way forward on other issues, like infrastructure and tax reform. Already Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), who chairs the tax-focused Ways and Means Committee, has indicated working with Democrats on tax reform is an option.

Should that happen, it’s safe to assume conservatives won’t be on board. Obviously, working with Democrats is not a model that House Speaker Paul Ryan or the Republican conference has wanted to pursue on health care.

As for Trump, he has both indicated that he is willing to work with the left and gotten furious at the sight of an actual bipartisan deal.

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