House Republicans unite on spending cuts to non-defense programs, but Senate roadblock awaits

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans are off to a quicker, more united start this year when it comes to funding the federal government, passing four of 12 annual appropriations bills before the end of June compared to zero at this time last year when the new majority got off to a rocky start.

But there is no denying the spending fights to come.

All four bills that passed the House so far generated veto threats from President Joe Biden 's administration and drew widespread Democratic opposition and they have no chance of passing the Senate in their current form. That means a protracted, months-long battle that will likely require one or more stopgap spending bills to keep the federal government fully open when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Here's a snapshot of where things stand in the appropriations process and the likely flashpoints.

Plowing ahead

House Republicans are intent on passing the dozen appropriations bills one at a time rather than combining them into one, massive catchall bill known as an omnibus, which they say leads to excessive spending and faulty government policies because such massive bills are harder to amend or stop without risking a government shutdown.

Earlier this year, Speaker Mike Johnson broke up the discretionary spending into two bills. Congress ended up passing them in March nearly halfway through the fiscal year. Now, House Republicans are intent on moving more quickly for the fiscal year 2025 spending bills. Johnson bragged that the House has passed four of next year's spending bills compared to zero in the Senate.

“House Republicans have committed to building that muscle memory back and go through with regular order,” Johnson said.

Non-defense spending cuts

The House GOP's momentum is likely temporary. They decided to go their own way rather than work with Democrats in crafting the bills. GOP leadership jettisoned key aspects of an agreement then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy worked out with Biden that put in place strict spending limits as part of a deal to avoid a crippling default.

The agreement called for defense and non-defense spending to increase 1% during the next fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. But House Republicans have decided that they'll pursue a course where only defense will go up that amount. Non-defense spending will be cut by about 6%, spurning adjustments McCarthy and the White House agreed to that would allow for more non-defense spending than was specified in the debt ceiling legislation.

The difference between the two paths is significant. If House Republicans stayed with the McCarthy-Biden agreement, non-defense spending would rise from nearly $773 billion this year to more than $780 billion in the next fiscal year. Instead, they are working toward roughly $725 billion in non-defense spending.

Rep. Tom Cole, the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, argued that House Republicans are going by what was in the debt ceiling bill. Not all of the Biden-McCarthy agreement was in it. The negotiators had agreed to claw back funding approved outside the appropriations process to shore up non-defense spending and keep it relatively flat. For example, negotiators agreed to trim $20 billion from the IRS and apply that money elsewhere.

The White House says that “rather than respecting their agreement” and engaging in a bipartisan process, “House Republicans are again wasting time with partisan bills that would result in deep cuts" to law enforcement, education, housing and other programs.

Cole argues that Democrats have brought the GOP's course of action on by voting with eight Republicans to oust McCarthy.

“Democrats need to understand that they participated in getting rid of the speaker. It was their choice. They had every right to do it. But if you think you can get rid of the person you cut the deal with, and the deal's going to stay the same, maybe you need to rethink it," Cole said.

Meanwhile, House Republicans are adding scores of policy mandates to the spending bills that are dead on arrival with a Democratic-led Senate and White House. For example, the House defense spending bill would not allow the Pentagon to reimburse servicemembers for travel expenses related to getting an abortion. Many troops and their dependents are based in states where abortion is now illegal so they must travel to get abortion care.

Democrats see the House GOP's action as failing to learn the lessons of last year. Any spending bills passed into law will need bipartisan support. They described the House floor action on the spending bills as a waste of time since the bills have no chance in the Senate.

“Extreme MAGA Republicans are marching us toward a government shutdown,” warned Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries.

Where things stand in the Senate

Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patty Murray and the committee's lead Republican, Sen. Susan Collins, have been in talks behind the scenes negotiating topline spending totals for defense and non-defense programs.

Both are looking to go above the 1% increase slated for defense and non-defense under the agreement that Biden and McCarthy reached.

Boosting the defense budget is a top priority of some Republicans, but Murray is insisting on parity.

“Parity is the order of the day,” she said. “Because investments in our families, in our economy, in communities’ safety and success are no less important than investments at the Pentagon.”

The committee is scheduled to take up its first three spending bills on Thursday and the topline amount of money to be allocated for each of the 12 spending bills.

If the Senate goes beyond the 1% increase, that could complicate passage in the House, where many Republicans viewed the spending caps as too generous. A few months after those caps were approved as part of the debt ceiling bill, eight Republicans sided with Democrats to oust then-Speaker McCarthy from his job.

Lame-duck or wait until next president is sworn into office?

Nobody expects Congress to finish its work on spending before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1, meaning that lawmakers in both chambers will have to agree to a stopgap spending bill to keep government agencies operating for a few more weeks while they work out their differences.

Congress is not expected to be in session in October, so lawmakers can be at home on the campaign trail. That means spending legislation will be pushed into November and possibly December or it will be pushed off for a new president and Congress to handle. Some Republicans believe they have a good chance of winning the Senate and the White House, so they should wait until next year to pass the spending bills.

But leadership is pushing to deal with spending this year, saying that if Republicans do take the Senate and the White House, they'll want to focus on other priorities, including tax policy and the border.

“Whether we win the Senate or not, the filibuster is still there, and that's the real leverage for either side in the Senate,” Cole said. “So why stick a new president, who hasn't even gotten his people into place, with dealing with it?”