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ANALYSIS

How House Republicans got to 'yes' on funding the government

The House of Representatives side of the U.S. Capitol.

STARS AND STRIPES

By LINDSEY MCPHERSON | CQ-Roll Call | Published: January 19, 2018

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — All eyes are on the Senate on Friday as lawmakers there race against the clock to avert a government shutdown. But over in the House, Republicans are happy they were able to pass a four-week stopgap measure without turning to the Democrats for help.

It wasn’t an easy task for House GOP leaders to cobble up the 216 votes within their conference needed to pass a continuing resolution. (The bill ended up passing Thursday, 230-197.) Yet throughout the negotiations, leadership remained confident its members would get there, given the urgency of the deadline and the political consequences if they failed to meet it.

“I have confidence we’ll pass this because I think members understand, ‘Why on earth would we want a government shutdown?’” Speaker Paul D. Ryan told reporters Thursday morning as his leadership team was still whipping support for the bill. “That is not in anyone’s interest.”

By the time the Wisconsin Republican held his weekly press conference at 11:30 a.m., the makings of the deal that led to the breakthrough about six hours later were well underway.

On Wednesday, Ryan had told House Armed Services members — many of whom were reluctant to vote on a fourth CR given that such funding measures hamstring the military — that he would hold another vote on a bill to fully fund the Defense Department at levels above the fiscal 2018 sequestration cap. That funding was included in a GOP omnibus spending bill the House passed in September.

House Chief Deputy Whip Patrick T. McHenry discussed the same idea later Wednesday with the House Freedom Caucus, another key opposition bloc leadership had to work on.

By Thursday morning, things were moving in a positive direction so Ryan’s confidence before the press was not totally unfounded.

But Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows told reporters right after the speaker’s news conference that more than 22 Republicans remained opposed to the CR and that it couldn’t pass in its current form.

“We’ve offered a number of different options, so it would take the leadership putting forth a different proposal than they currently have,” the North Carolina Republican said around noon.

Early Thursday afternoon, Ryan held his weekly cross-sectional lunch with members representing different GOP caucuses. Meadows and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan were present, as were members from other groups, including Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker and Tuesday Group Co-Chairman Charlie Dent.

After the CR had passed, Walker dismissed the idea that the Freedom Caucus had secured a deal in exchange for a vote on the defense bill, saying Ryan had already expressed his commitment to the defense vote during the afternoon lunch.

“I’m not going to put any kind of motive on what they did, but that was something that was discussed at (the) cross-sectional lunch today, so I’m not sure why the afternoon was spent trying to … yeah,” he said, stopping just short of criticizing his colleagues.

Negotiations briefly took a turn away from spending midday Thursday as House Republicans were given an opportunity to view a classified memo obtained by the House Intelligence Committee on information related to the Russia investigation.

A source familiar with the Freedom Caucus’ discussions with leadership said Meadows asked for the immediate public release of the memo in exchange for his group’s support on the CR.

Jordan, a former caucus chairman who joined Meadows in the negotiations, told Roll Call several things were discussed.

“Of course, we talked about the memo today because it’s on everyone’s mind. We just read it,” the Ohio Republican said. The document prompted a “holy cow” reaction from members who read it, Jordan recalled, adding that the caucus believes it should be released to the public.

While Jordan couldn’t share details of the classified memo, he said it was “related to the FBI and the Russian probe.” He said releasing it would simply take a vote of the House Intelligence Committee and approval by the executive branch. If the latter objects, the full House could vote to overrule that decision, Jordan said.

Initiating a process to release the memo “was certainly part of what we talked about needs to happen over the next several weeks,” he said when asked if it was a request for their support on the CR. “We stressed to leadership how important it was that that happened.”

Ryan deferred to Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes in rejecting the Freedom Caucus’s request, the source familiar with the discussions said.

Once the classified memo was off the table, negotiations continued around a vote on the defense funding bill. GOP leaders had no problem promising that vote to the Freedom Caucus since they had already made the same commitment to defense hawks on Armed Services, the source said.

“Armed Services was pushing for it; they had come and talked to us about it,” Jordan confirmed. “But I think where the Freedom Caucus was key was we had enough votes to — we’re the group that can stop things, so we had the votes to stop (the CR).”

That, along with a commitment for a vote on a hard-line immigration bill, is ultimately what swayed the caucus to vote for the CR, he said.

Specifically, the group was told there would be a vote within 10 legislative days on a measure to raise the $549 billion sequestration spending cap on defense funding for fiscal 2018 to the level Congress approved in the National Defense Authorization Act — a roughly $80 billion increase — and to then appropriate that money, Meadows said.

The Freedom Caucus had initially been pushing for the defense funding bill to be included in the CR, but knowing that was a long shot, Meadows had been working on backup plans. A “Plan B” to add to the CR defense anomalies — a pay increase for servicemembers and funding for equipment and maintenance — had gained some steam early Wednesday but was off the table a day later.

Meadows said he always knew it would likely come down to a “Plan C” that he declined to detail. (Around noon Thursday, he confirmed the negotiations had reached that point.) It’s hard to say how close the eventual deal matched what he had envisioned, given that he never disclosed the details of the plan.

After the cross-sectional lunch Thursday, heading into a vote on the rule that set up debate on the CR, McHenry told reporters he was confident the House would pass the measure Thursday evening with Republican votes and without changes. (The North Carolina Republican led the whip operation.)

Meadows pushed back, saying there were still enough votes to defeat the CR as he headed to a Freedom Caucus meeting to discuss their next tactical play. During that confab in Jordan’s office, Meadows and Jordan spoke with President Donald Trump by phone. Timing suggests the call took place while the president was on Air Force One, returning from a trip to Pennsylvania.

When Meadows and Jordan left just before 5 p.m. to meet with GOP leaders in Ryan’s office, they wouldn’t reveal what was discussed but Meadows suggested Trump was supportive of his next move.

“There’s no distance between our positions,” he said.

On his way to meet with leadership, Meadows stopped by CNN’s TV crew set up outside the House chamber for a 15-minute interview with Wolf Blitzer. He then joined Jordan in a huddle with Ryan, McHenry and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy that lasted roughly 30 minutes.

Ryan “put forth a few things for our caucus to consider that would actually be beneficial to the military and our focus on the military needs going forward,” Meadows said after the meeting, hinting at the commitment on the defense bill.

Meadows and Jordan returned to the latter’s office for another caucus huddle to pitch the deal. At 6:23 p.m. a tweet from @freedomcaucus confirmed the breakthrough had won the hard-line conservatives’ votes on the CR.

Moments later, Meadows emerged from Jordan’s office, telling reporters support for the CR was based on securing commitments for two votes, one on the defense bill and one on a hard-line immigration measure.

Meadows said he expects the latter vote to occur by Feb. 16, the end date in the House-passed CR, and it would largely mirror a bill by House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte but with some changes related to visas for agricultural workers.

The Goodlatte bill would fund Trump’s requested border wall, end the diversity visa lottery and terminate green cards for extended family. It would also provide a three-year renewable status for current recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which protects some 700,000 young undocumented immigrants from deportation.

Ryan only agreed to a vote on the Goodlatte bill by the end of February if they could get the support of 218 Republicans by then, the source familiar with the discussions said. He did promise the Freedom Caucus he’d put a whip team together to work that bill harder.

Meadows expressed confidence that sufficient votes could be corralled for the measure, but Dent, a leading GOP moderate, was doubtful.

“Some members are operating under the illusion, or the fantasy, that House Republicans will pass a Republican-only DACA bill. It’s not going to happen,” the Pennsylvania Republican said in an interview Thursday night. “And even if it did, to what end? The Senate will not take it up.”

Meadows and Jordan believe that passing the immigration bill would strengthen House Republicans’ hand in bipartisan, bicameral negotiations.

“That sends a strong message,” Jordan said. “This is sort of a mark in the sand. This is the kind of bill that Republicans know is what the election was about.”

A vote on the Goodlatte bill would be rough for GOP moderates, but Dent said if leadership did bring it up, those who’d need to vote against it because of their districts would do so.

Even so, he said it was “absurd” that leadership was willing to make concessions to members on bills that will ultimately die in the Senate, referring to both the Goodlatte bill and defense funding measure.

“We give cover to members in deep red districts at the expense of members in marginal districts,” Dent said.

That’s all a vote on the Goodlatte bill is about — “to give political cover to the members who will be voting no on the final bipartisan DACA agreement,” he added.

Such an agreement will likely come from the Senate and “will not be able to garner a majority of the majority of the House Republicans,” he predicted.

Dent, an appropriator who supports increased funding for the military, also panned the decision to allow another House vote on the defense appropriations bill.

“We can send another defense bill over, but it won’t move until the others move,” he said of the 11 other appropriations measures that with defense make a 12-bill omnibus. “As Mitch McConnell says, ‘What wisdom is to be gained from the second — and in this case third, fourth, fifth — kick of the mule.”

Dent quoting the Senate majority leader is apt because McConnell remains the House Republicans’ biggest obstacle to accomplishing their goal of steamrolling Democrats on spending and immigration negotiations.

One idea some House GOP members discussed Thursday as they pondered whether the Senate would push a vote on the defense bill was McConnell getting rid of the filibuster for appropriations bills — an unlikely scenario.

“We were hoping that maybe even … if the Dems try to shut down the government, that would give Mitch McConnell enough ammunition to pull the (60-vote) cloture (threshold) and just say, ‘Let’s go nuclear here.’ So maybe that’s a path,” Walker said.

Meadows said he believes Ryan had a discussion with McConnell regarding Senate action on the defense bill. “My understanding is it’s different this time,” he said.

In a sign that may be true, South Dakota Republican Sen. Mike Rounds said Thursday that Senate GOP leaders told him they’d bring up the defense bill within four weeks of it passing the House. With that commitment, Rounds said he would support a Senate procedural vote Friday to move forward with the CR.

Even if the Senate does take up the defense measure, it’s likely to fail since Democrats won’t support it. And the Goodlatte bill, if it can even pass the House, also has no future in the other chamber. That means Freedom Caucus members have effectively won nothing.

Meadows said he believes they negotiated the best deal they could “under the current circumstances,” but alluded to other concessions they might have been offered.

“There are certainly a lot of subplots that I am not articulating right now that we did get, that I don’t — well, I will not be mentioning in terms of other things,” he said.

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.

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