Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) defeated Sen. Rick Scott’s (Fla.) bid to take his job, but the battle isn’t over.
McConnell now faces a fight with Scott and other Senate conservatives over whether to block a year-end spending package before Christmas.
The GOP leader wants to pass the omnibus package funding the federal government before the end of December, according to Senate Republican and Democratic sources. But he’s coming under increasing pressure from conservatives who want to freeze federal spending until January, when Republicans will take control of the House.
Scott told The Hill he plans to “actively” press for a stopgap funding measure freezing federal spending levels until next year, something he and Republican Sens. Mike Lee (Utah) and Ted Cruz (Texas) called for in September in a Fox News op-ed.
That would put spending negotiations on hold until Republicans take over the House majority and have more leverage to negotiate the top-line spending number and specific priorities, such as more funding to secure the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We have to have a plan to deal with inflation, we’ve got to have a plan to deal with the border,” Scott said. “My goal is to organize Republicans to have our ideas, what we’re going to get done.”
Scott, whom colleagues thought was weighing a presidential run in 2024, said he’s focused on the Senate and running for reelection to a second term.
“I think my role is trying to do the things that are important for Floridians,” he said. “I plan to run for reelection as U.S. senator.”
Another conservative Republican senator confirmed that there will be a new push for another stopgap measure, known as a continuing resolution or CR. The current CR expires Dec. 16.
The GOP lawmaker said the topic didn’t get much discussion during last week’s intense discussions behind closed doors about what went wrong for Republicans in the midterm election but predicted it will become a hot topic of debate after Thanksgiving.
A Senate aide said Scott is going to continue to put pressure on McConnell when he disagrees about fundamental party strategy — including whether to work with Democrats to pass an omnibus package in the lame-duck session.
“He’s not quiet when he is upset with the way things are going or has a position on something,” the aide said, noting that Scott’s style “is to get out there pretty aggressively on things.”
McConnell’s staff drew heat from outside conservative groups last week when they met outside the Capitol along with other senior Senate staff.
“It did not seem that McConnell is interested in stopping the Biden agenda for another year,” said a person familiar with the discussion.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) said Republican senators are still debating what spending strategy to adopt when they return to Washington next week.
“We’re having discussions about that,” he said. “There’s going to be strong argument, I think, for just doing a [continuing resolution] largely because the Dems who run this place right now have not been able to agree on a top line.”
“It seems like we’re heading toward a CR,” he added, but acknowledged that could lead to a standoff in the early months of next year. “Based on how it feels around here right it seems more likely it’s going to be a CR but that does create … some challenges down the road we would have to deal with next year.”
The discussions seem to mirror those that took place in 2010, after Republicans won control of the House but Democrats kept control of the Senate.
Republicans that year insisted on pushing spending negotiations into the next Congress, resulting in a several-month standoff between the Obama administration and the new House Republican majority led by then-Speaker John Boehner (Ohio). Ultimately, then-President Obama agreed to $38.5 billion in spending cuts in April of 2011.
Republicans now want to cut funding for an estimated 87,000 new IRS agents authorized by the Inflation Reduction Act, which Democrats passed by party-line votes this summer.
Conservative groups including the Heritage Foundation, Heritage Action, the Club for Growth and the American Conservative Union, called on congressional Republicans earlier this year to insist that any omnibus spending bill end the national COVID-19 emergency declaration, which President Biden has extended through 2023.
Republicans will have significantly more leverage in negotiations on such a package once they control the House.
But McConnell and other Senate Republicans are reluctant to push the spending bills for fiscal 2023, which began Oct. 1, until next year.
Doing so would likely delay, if not imperil, passage of more military and economic aid for Ukraine, a top McConnell priority.
Last week, the White House asked Congress for $37.7 billion in new funding for Ukraine and more than $8 billion to pay for coronavirus-related vaccines and treatments.
Senate GOP critics of the proposal to postpone an omnibus spending package until next year argue that doing so could also delay the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which will likely be included with the spending bills in December because of the shortage of floor time.
“I would prefer both the NDAA and the omnibus … to be done this year so we can start on the next one immediately,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (N.D.), who voted to reelect McConnell as Senate GOP leader.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is working on rounding up enough votes to be elected the next Speaker in January, last week floated the prospect of delaying the defense authorization bill, even though members of the Armed Services Committee have prided themselves on passing that bill on time for the past 60 years in a row.
“I’ve watched what the Democrats have done on many of these things, especially the NDAA — the woke-ism that they want to bring in there,” he told reporters. “I actually believe the NDAA should hold up until the 1st of this year — and let’s get it right.”
There are other high-priority legislative items that need the omnibus to move before the end of December if they are to have a chance of passing Congress, such as an energy project permitting reform measure that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is negotiating with Republicans.
The Electoral Count Act, a bipartisan bill that clarifies the vice president only has ministerial role in certifying the winner of a presidential election, is another candidate to be attached to the year-end spending package.
Cramer dismissed the claims of fellow Republicans that the omnibus could be finished up quickly in January under a new House Republican majority. Instead, he thinks it’s like spending negotiations would drag on for weeks or months, as they did in 2011.
“The idea that we could somehow deal with it in the first week of the new Congress, that’s just not realistic,” he said.
“So while I understand particularly the probably Speaker’s desire to delay some of these things, I don’t see there being that much more leverage,” he added, he added referring to McCarthy.
Senate GOP aides say that retiring Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the top-ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee and a longtime McConnell ally, doesn’t support postponing major spending decisions until next year, when he will no longer be in Congress.
“I think we ought to do our jobs,” Shelby told reporters in September. “I want to help Leahy best I can to meet our obligation,” referring to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who will also retire at year’s end.
“I think McConnell is of that persuasion,” he added. “Some people want to kick [funding decisions] down the road.”