Mitt Romney polled his fellow GOP senators during a private lunch on Wednesday: How many of them would prefer a clean government funding patch over the bill the Senate is taking up this week, which is stocked with billions of dollars in emergency spending on causes like aiding Ukraine?
A clear majority of hands in the room shot up to support the clean bill.
On one level that might sound encouraging: There is apparently majority support among Senate Republicans for a no-frills, no-cuts bill to keep funding the government. But it’s hardly enough to stave off a shutdown.
In fact, Romney‘s informal whip count, described by two attendees at the GOP’s Wednesday lunch, encapsulated the deep divisions that are plaguing Republicans on both sides of the Capitol. Many Senate Republicans support Ukraine aid and disaster funding, but they are now trying to triangulate legislation for House Republicans that can seemingly find no agreement among themselves.
The Senate GOP is desperate to find a way to avert a shutdown and crafted a bipartisan legislative package this week with that goal in mind. The idea behind it was passing something that Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s members might ultimately be able to accept as they flailed across the Capitol. But the Senate’s plan also included components like new funding for Ukraine — a red line for some of McCarthy’s members — and disaster relief money.
Now that McCarthy has rejected the Senate’s legislation, Senate Republicans are plainly ambivalent about it, as Romney’s informal poll suggested. House Republicans have also spurned a clean government funding bill, the other option in Romney’s poll.
That leaves the GOP without any obvious path forward in either chamber — and the risk of carrying all the blame.
While Democrats run the White House and Senate, any deal will require enough of McCarthy’s chaotic House GOP majority and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s 49 Republican senators to get a House majority and 60 votes in the Senate. And right now, they’re not even close.
Some House Republicans still hope the Senate can send over a truly “clean” bill by Saturday’s deadline.
“They haven’t been real anxious to throw that life preserver into the water yet,” Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) said of senators’ loaded-up spending patch. “So we’re still taking on a lot of water.”
It’s no secret that the House and Senate GOP are often far apart, on everything from Donald Trump to aiding Ukraine to the Capitol riot. McCarthy and McConnell generally work well together but aren’t always helping each other, particularly given how leery House conservatives are of the Kentuckian. McCarthy torched last year’s McConnell-backed government funding agreement, and this year McConnell let McCarthy handle the debt crisis on his own.
At the moment, the GOP miscommunication goes deeper than the two leaders, though. McCarthy is still churning away on a dead-on-arrival plan that may not even get enough House Republican votes to reach the Senate.
And while some of his own members would have preferred a stopgap bill without Ukraine aid, McConnell asked the White House recently to sketch out a full year of that money beyond the three months of money it requested earlier this year, according to a person familiar with the move. That move would allow Ukraine backers to figure out a longer-term strategy to keep funding Ukraine’s defense.
The daylight between McCarthy and McConnell’s respective conferences, not to mention the leaders themselves, can’t continue if Congress has any hope of avoiding a shutdown — one that, at the moment, Democrats can easily pin on House Republicans.
“They are in different places, but I don’t think it’s for lack of coordination,” Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), a former House member, said of McCarthy and McConnell. “I think as the hours go on, that they’re going to be able to get closer to the same page.”
But as Republicans iron out their own differences, Democrats still control the Senate and can easily strip out any conservative House-passed border policies or protect Ukraine funding. Senate Democrats said any changes made to their bill in a bid to appeal to the House GOP would face heavy scrutiny.
McConnell’s immediate approval of the Senate’s stopgap bill reflects an acknowledgment that its $6 billion apiece for Ukraine and disaster aid were necessary features to a bill rolling through a Democratic chamber.
“Leader McConnell probably felt like we should show some movement over here,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said. “There’s another theory … that the Senate can pass something and try to jam the house, but I don’t think the House is jammable.”
The wrangling across the Capitol looks far different from this spring, when McConnell gave McCarthy space to negotiate his way out of the debt crisis. But McCarthy’s grip on his own members has also substantially weakened since then, leaving the speaker currently unable to make any kind of short-term funding deal to keep the lights on past Sept. 30.
That puts McConnell in the strange position as Democrats’ best hope.
“Sen. McConnell recognizes that this is certainly not in the best interests of the Republican Party to have a Republican shutdown,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the No. 3 party leader.
Now, as the clock ticks down, the House and Senate are openly taking potshots at each other.
In a remark seemingly directed at the House GOP, McConnell warned on the floor Wednesday that a vote against funding the government would also effectively vote against paying border patrol agents who are “working to track down lethal fentanyl and tame our open borders.”
McCarthy offered his own subtle jab, telling his members in a private meeting on Wednesday morning that the “Republican and Democratic Senate are together” in favor of hiking spending, according to a person who listened in and spoke on condition of anonymity.
That talk from the speaker reflects his awareness that any Senate deal, even if it’s clean, would face major pushback from House conservatives who have long distrusted McConnell’s dealmaking.
“No surprise whatsoever. For me, it’s been anticipated — in fact, it’s later than I would have thought,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said of McConnell’s decision to endorse a stopgap bill alongside Democratic leaders. “He’s happy to use this moment to try to spend as much money as he possibly can.”