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House GOP notches early win in bid to unite party on spending — but pitfalls remain

House Republicans notched an initial victory on Wednesday in their push to win over enough conservatives to pass their slate of government spending measures — with a Sept. 30 shutdown deadline looming ahead.

GOP leaders successfully appeased conservatives who hold the fate of the party’s spending bills in their hands, as the House voted to start floor debate on a package that would fund veterans programs and military construction.

But the rest of Republicans’ spending proposals are in limbo as Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s leadership team tries to close out a deal with members of the House Freedom Caucus who are seeking austere cuts to bills that were already severely slashed and stocked with contentious policy changes.

Conservatives huddled in McCarthy’s office ahead of the vote to tee up the veterans spending bill, which Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) called the “first test” of whether the Republican conference can unify on funding.

“Like most things in Washington, everything goes down to the final minute,” Donalds said.

As those talks continued, Republican leaders privately circulated a list of cuts that would bring the spending measures closer to the $1.47 trillion total for non-defense spending that conservatives are demanding. The cuts balance out billions of dollars GOP leaders want to claw back from money Congress already approved — a move that conservatives see as a ploy, not real spending reduction.

It’s a risky overture for House GOP leaders, who could alienate as many Republicans as they appease. Senior House Republicans are starting to openly chafe at their leaders’ agreement to more draconian cuts.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said if he’s forced to make those kinds of cuts to this own bill, he might as well “drop it on the floor and stomp on it.” “What else do you do? You can’t make logical cuts,” Simpson said. Asked if it was a realistic process, he said: “No, and besides that, why would you do it? It’s not going to become law.”

And on the other side, some Freedom Caucus members say they’re still unconvinced about whether the bills can be further pared back.

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), a member of the conservative bloc, said a broader spending agreement still needs to be “consummated.”

The conservative holdouts in the spending impasse have benefited from the ticking clock: They delivered their ultimatum on more cuts in the last days before the House is scheduled to adjourn for a six-week break. Before lawmakers leave Washington, GOP leaders are eager to notch passage of spending bills to show unity ahead of a September shutdown clash with the Democratic Senate.

House Freedom Caucus Chair Scott Perry said there has been “some confusion” about the proposed cuts, in addition to policy sticking points, and stopped short of confirming a deal with leadership: “We’ve got to work some things out,” he said Wednesday.

In addition to their veterans funding bill, GOP leaders are hoping this week to pass a measure that would fund the Agriculture Department and FDA for the coming fiscal year. Freedom Caucus members acknowledge that the veterans legislation has a better shot at passing before August than the agriculture spending bill, which is dogged by billions of dollars in proposed rescissions and a conservative push to ban mail-order abortion pills.

Moderate Republicans are pushing to strip out the anti-abortion provision, while also raising concerns over the bill’s cuts to nutrition programs and other policy issues. Freedom Caucus members are demanding new work requirements for recipients of federal food aid, for example. But the House parliamentarian has ruled out their marquee proposal to impose those standards, as POLITICO first reported.

Many House Republicans already contended that the 12 funding bills they crafted this spring and summer spent as little as they could on funding federal agencies and programs. Those measures were drafted about $119 billion below the levels agreed to in the bipartisan debt ceiling deal that McCarthy negotiated with President Joe Biden this spring.

The Senate, meanwhile, has drafted largely bipartisan spending bills in line with the levels established by the debt deal, even adding $14 billion in extra emergency funding to ensure the Pentagon and other agencies aren’t shortchanged.

Trying to exact more cuts in the House, while retaining enough support for passage, is “a careful balance,” said Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), a McCarthy ally and a lead negotiator of the debt ceiling package.

“The Appropriations Committee, the cardinals, I think have done a fantastic job. And we’re just going to keep working to build upon the success of the committee,” Graves said this week.

Those so-called “cardinals,” the Republicans who chair the dozen spending panels, have publicly acknowledged that they struggled to write funding bills that spent as little as they did — before conservatives rejected them as too high.

“I’ll be real honest with you, if you’re looking for a pretty bill, this is not it,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said earlier this month about the measure he spearheads, which funds the EPA and the Interior Department.

Sarah Ferris and Meredith Lee Hill contributed to this report.

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