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Saturday, March 2, 2024
March 2, 2024

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Supermajority bar for spending bills a real, and risky, prospect


WASHINGTON — In a few weeks, House GOP leaders will likely face something unprecedented in modern congressional history: the need for a two-thirds supermajority to pass final spending bills for the current fiscal year.

It’s a bar that, had it been in place for the past quarter-century, would have kept numerous appropriations packages from getting out of the House — potentially leading to more partial government shutdowns and continuing resolutions. And this year, it empowers the minority House Democrats, who already have a leg up in the fiscal 2024 negotiations, with the White House and Senate on their side.

In just under half of the budget cycles dating back to 1998, at least one of the annual spending bills did not get two-thirds support in the House, CQ Roll Call found. On four occasions, not a single spending measure received two-thirds backing, a task that can be harder when congressional leaders resort to bundling them into giant omnibus packages.

That’s what happened in December 2022, when all but nine House Republicans voted against the year-end fiscal 2023 spending package. And conservatives are already outraged that the topline nondefense spending target for appropriators that Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., signed off in talks with Democrats is roughly the same as the previous year’s under then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

While infrequent, the House in recent decades has used suspension of the rules to pass various CRs — including three since September — and even some emergency funding packages like initial pandemic relief bills in early 2020. But never the final full-year appropriations bills. That could be about to change, creating a new, higher bar to passage that could have derailed numerous full-year spending bills throughout the years.

Dividing the question

The vote outcomes by party are, naturally, influenced by who’s in control.

During the fiscal 2011 through 2019 period when Republicans controlled the House, GOP votes in favor of spending bills averaged out to 164, versus 146 for Democrats. That flipped dramatically after Democrats took back the House in the 2018 midterms: on spending bills enacted during their majority since 2019, Democrats averaged about 206 “yea” votes to 95 for Republicans.

At times, the majority has “divided the question” on spending bill votes, offering members the opportunity for separate votes on parts of the combined bill they like and dislike, without costing so many votes it could sink the entire package.

For example, that tactic was used to split up votes on security and nonsecurity spending measures in 2020 and 2021, on whether to fund the war in Iraq in 2007 and on a tax package Hill leaders were adding to a wrap-up spending bill in late 2015.

Isolating the security-related bills in recent years helped pad out GOP support for getting final appropriations bills enacted, with triple-digit backing. When Democrats skipped that procedure in late 2022, Republican support for the combined fiscal 2023 omnibus package tanked nearly completely, resulting in the single-digit result.

But dividing the question isn’t allowed on suspension votes under House rules. “A question being considered pursuant to a motion to suspend the rules may not be divided for a vote,” according to the House Practice manual, a collection of rules and precedents.

A final impact could be on the “hope yes, vote no” faction of lawmakers who are typically able to cast politically safer votes against big spending packages, knowing others will carry it across the finish line to prevent adverse real-world impacts. With a two-thirds threshold required, fewer members can hide behind “free votes” — they’ll need to be team players.

‘A mutual understanding’

Due to Johnson’s razor-thin majority, all it takes is a few Republicans to vote “no” on rules for floor debate to prevent legislation from being considered since rule votes are generally party-line affairs. House Freedom Caucus members and allied hard-liners — and even moderate blue-state Republicans now as well — have shown a greater willingness to buck their own leadership on floor votes than in any Congress in decades.

Accordingly, the House has already taken up and passed three temporary stopgap funding bills on suspension, one under ex-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and two under Johnson, R-La., and now a major tax bill, another previously unthinkable prospect.

The latest continuing resolution on Jan. 18 barely eked out a “majority of the majority” House vote — an informal metric that took hold during the reign of then-Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., in the early 2000s — thanks to some timely absences and one notable vote-flip, Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich. The GOP vote was 107-106, while Democrats backed the measure 207-2.

That likely means that to get through the House and the Democratic-controlled Senate, and earn President Joe Biden’s signature, final spending bills will likely need to be stripped of conservative policy riders added by House Republicans earlier in the process. Freedom Caucus and aligned members are looking at a possible shredding of their priorities in the fiscal 2024 appropriations process and heavy reliance on Democratic votes to get the bills through.

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“There is now a mutual understanding that the only way to finally end the saga of 2024 funding is to write appropriations bills that can earn the support of both Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, bills that will likely need to pass under suspension of the rules like the bill we are considering today,” House Appropriations ranking member Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said during debate on the CR last month.

“That is why Democrats in both chambers have also made clear that the final funding bill cannot include any poison pill riders,” DeLauro continued.

A senior GOP appropriator agreed that suspension votes are probably the default option for this year’s wrap-up spending bills.

“How can you construct these bills in such a way you can get 290 votes? And that’s a challenge for us,” said Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., chairman of the House Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee. “We may be able to come to agreement on numbers, and then we’re going to get bogged down in discussion on policy riders, those kinds of things.”

Jim Dyer, who served as GOP clerk and staff director of the House Appropriations Committee for a decade from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, blames the current “predicament” on those he calls “exotics” in the GOP who he said “have not come to terms with divided government.”

“You are looking at playing a hand that says that you are going to pass these bills with Democratic votes and appropriators, some leadership types, some moderates, some Northeasterners and Midwesterners, folks like that,” said Dyer, who’s now a senior adviser at Baker Donelson. “That’s your core crew as you try to get this train out of the station.”

And there is one thing that’s never happened during that time: a final spending package passing the House without a “majority of the majority.” Johnson could be first to suffer that indignity in late February or early March — with potentially ominous consequences for his speakership.

The very idea of bipartisanship seems anathema to those Republicans who are the most willing to sink rules for floor debate, which if adopted would give the majority a shot at passing partisan legislation.

At the same time, these members have been the most critical of putting bills up for votes under the alternative method requiring a supermajority, such as the bipartisan tax package or the stopgap measure that passed on Jan. 18 — and probably the huge spending bills due by early March, totaling $1.66 trillion.

“Mr. Speaker, here we are again where the minority party isn’t even using their time to oppose the bill put forward by the majority,” House Freedom Caucus Chair Bob Good, R-Va., said during the Jan. 31 tax bill debate. “Just two weeks ago, the last major piece of legislation that we passed by suspension of the rules, the Democrat minority party voted for it 207–2.”

“It will be interesting tonight to see how many Democrats vote for this and how many Republicans vote for it,” Good continued.

Shortly afterward, more Democrats voted for the tax bill than Republicans —188 to 169 — on the 357-70 vote. Good was among the “no” votes.