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Republicans race to build support for spending bills as divisions loom large

<i>Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Reuters/FILE</i><br/>The dome of the US Capitol is reflected in a window on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 20.
Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Reuters/FILE
The dome of the US Capitol is reflected in a window on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 20.

By Lauren Fox, CNN

(CNN) — House Republicans are furiously working through the recess to shore up support on a series of spending bills leaders hope to put on the floor as soon as July, another critical test for Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s struggle to hold onto his right flank and make good on a series of promises he made to clinch the gavel in January.

The House Appropriations Committee passed six spending bills ahead of the July Fourth recess, but negotiations are continuing over recess on whether those bills – and the six still working their way through committee – might need further changes to win support on the House floor. The speaker can only afford to lose a handful of members. It’s a massive undertaking and once again puts a spotlight on whether the Republican majority in the House can stay unified after bitter divisions stalled the chamber in June.

“We’re having a lot of conversations during the break as well to make sure we are all on the same page,” Majority Leader Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, told CNN before the recess. “We’re going to go one at a time and work with our members every step of the way.”

Over the recess, members have planned small group meetings intended to get Republicans on the same page and educate newer members about what is possible in the weeks and months ahead on spending.

“The only way you are going to get through this is with a strong communication, strong discussion. … You don’t do that by playing chicken. You do that by sitting down and trying to understand where we are going and make sure everyone has good, solid facts,” said Rep. Mark Amodei, an GOP appropriator from Nevada.

While the conference is largely united on spending levels for the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense and Veterans Affairs, there is still some disagreement about spending levels for other agencies, raising the stakes on whether leaders will ultimately be able to pass all 12 spending bills on the floor before a fall deadline.

“I don’t think anybody believes the federal bureaucracy can’t survive on 2019 or 2020 levels of spending pre-Covid,” Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, a conservative, said about wanting to push the spending levels lower.

Behind the scenes, leaders and appropriators are trying to win over some in their right flank by emphasizing a series of policy riders they believe could attract those in the House Freedom Caucus who have railed against the overall spending levels as too high.

Some of those items include policies barring federal spending on programs that invest in diversity, equity and inclusion training, surgical procedures or hormone therapies for the purposes of gender-affirming care and policies banning any funding that would be used for discriminatory action against a person on the basis the person acted in accordance with a “sincerely held religious belief.” Some conservatives are also pushing to include riders like rescinding funding for a new FBI headquarters in the wake of the federal indictment against former President Donald Trump. That rider hasn’t yet been included, but is a top target for some conservatives.

“When you see what we have put in these bills, the riders, the policies, it is going to be hard for them to substantiate killing these bills, and it’s going to be tough for them personally to vote against these bills,” one appropriator said on background to freely discuss internal conversations with conservatives. “What we need to do is keep reminding them that it is not just the budget.”

Already, Republicans in the House have sought to slash federal spending back to fiscal year 2022 levels and, in some parts of the budget, even lower levels, marking up their bills in committee at billions less than what was agreed to in the debt ceiling package with the White House. It’s caused bipartisan consternation in the Senate and puts the two chambers on a collision course in the fall. The massive disparity in topline spending numbers between the House and Senate may grow as some members of the House Freedom Caucus have argued the numbers should be even lower than they are.

“You got a small group of people that are driving the numbers that we agreed to earlier, lower and lower,” GOP Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas said. “My guess is that even with the numbers we have begun marking our bills to will not be sufficient. … We are trying to manage through all the noise, all the discussion, all of the division.”

The message from leadership has been if House Republicans can pass all 12 appropriations bills, it will give Republicans more leverage in a negotiation with the Democratic-controlled Senate and White House.

The playbook for spending mirrors the process House leaders deployed with the debt ceiling just months ago. Before McCarthy ultimately cut a deal with the White House, he passed a Republican-only bill, which leaders built support for through a series of small group meetings of the so-called five families that represent different ideological corners of the conference. Once the plan took shape, the whip team – through a series of one-on-one calls and meetings – was able to convince all but four members to vote for it. But, even if leaders can re-harness that unity, they’ll have to do so for 12 different spending bills, relying on members who don’t typically back appropriations bills to begin with and leaders will have to decide whether they can move each bill with an open amendment process that was promised in January. Leaders will also have to move quickly to provide plenty of time for a potential conference with the Senate.

“What makes the most sense for us strategically is to get the numbers as low as we possibly can, get them out of the House as quick as we can for negotiating purposes. I think that is what is most strategic,” said Rep. Garret Graves, a Louisiana Republican and a key ally of the speaker who has helped negotiate the debt ceiling deal.

But much has changed since the leaders ran that playbook for the debt ceiling. In the week after the House passed their bipartisan debt ceiling deal, the House Freedom Caucus rebelled, refusing to back a procedural step to bring a group of GOP messaging bills to the floor. It took a week for leaders to break the stalemate and even since, hardliners have vowed to deploy the tactic again if the speaker crosses them.

Ultimately, some members acknowledge they’ll have to eventually compromise with the Senate or risk a government shutdown.

“We’re going to get back roughly what we had with the debt ceiling,” said Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican representing a swing district in Nebraska.

Asked if he believes the speaker will be able to put that kind of bipartisan bill back on the House floor, knowing it would anger the right, Bacon replied, “It’s just the reality.”

“The right wing will get mad and throw a fit, but they’re not realistic,” Bacon said.

It’s possible that lawmakers could buy themselves additional time, pass a short-term continuing resolution that would fund the government for a few months and punt harder decisions to the end of the year. But the debt ceiling bill passed in May included a provision that will enact a 1% across-the-board cut by April 2024 if Congress is still operating under a continuing resolution by then.

Republicans are warning that a longer-term continuing resolution is also not an option because it will enshrine into law for even longer Democratic policy riders.

“We can’t have a continuing resolution because it brings in four years of (former Speaker Nancy) Pelosi’s policy riders, and we can’t go there,” said Republican Study Committee Chair Kevin Hern of Oklahoma.

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CNN’s Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.

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