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Reed and Wicker

Shutdown averted. What’s next for the Hill?

The Senate cleared the House-passed stopgap funding bill late Wednesday night, averting a potential government shutdown after last-minute GOP objections forced a frantic round of negotiations over the annual defense authorization bill.

The blowout 87-11 vote came after several hours of closed-door talks over Sen. Roger Wicker’s (R-Miss.) ultimately successful effort to force lawmakers into a formal House-Senate conference on the National Defense Authorization Act. Congress has enacted this must-pass legislation every year since 1961.

While the immediate priority was preventing a shutdown, senators will have their work cut out for them when they return to Washington in early December, especially on the massive national security supplemental package.

“Now is not the time to pat ourselves on the back,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) told senators before the vote on the CR. “We cannot do half of our job here.”

While much of Congress’ to-do list is kicked into January, there are a few items lawmakers want to — or must — address by the end of 2023. The supplemental for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan will require a bipartisan deal on border policy changes in order to secure enough GOP support. Then there’s the FAA reauthorization, FISA surveillance reauthorization and, of course, the NDAA.

“I’m happy we get to go home and have Thanksgiving, that’s great,” Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) said. “[But] I think it’s nuts… Even Israel. We’re now punting on Israel? When has this country ever done this?”

Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, believed this was his last chance to trigger a formal conference committee on the NDAA, which is traditionally how the two chambers reconcile their competing versions of the bill.

Wicker’s counterparts atop the House and Senate Armed Services panels were agnostic on the issue, especially considering the condensed timeline for finishing the legislation.

But GOP defense hawks have long criticized Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer over how he has handled the annual defense policy bill over the years, arguing the New York Democrat hasn’t prioritized it highly enough. Wicker’s push was a reflection of that.

Senate Democrats ultimately were fine with acceding to Wicker’s demands, but they warned that a formal House-Senate conference, with all of its machinations, would significantly increase the risk that the bill doesn’t get done in time. Democrats also expect the conference itself to be a messy process given the polarizing issues at play in the House’s NDAA package.

In the end, Wicker insisted that he and Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) were in agreement.

“You can rest assured that Sen. Reed and I are both OK with this process,” Wicker said.

Reconciling the two chambers’ approach to the NDAA will be especially difficult because the House bill includes several culture-war provisions demanded by conservatives. These cover everything from the Pentagon’s abortion policy to transgender medical care for troops, DEI initiatives and climate change.

The House passed its bill largely on party lines, which is highly unusual for the NDAA. Only four House Democrats, all in tough districts, voted for the legislation. The Senate’s version is more of a bipartisan product, as nothing can clear that chamber without getting 60 votes.

The late-night Senate drama over the CR — which now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk — showed the vast majority of senators have no interest in shutdown gamesmanship.

Yet across the Capitol, the debate over FY2024 funding bills — and threats by hardline conservatives to use a shutdown to seek spending cuts and policy concessions — exposed once again the huge fissures inside the House Republican Conference.

Speaker Mike Johnson, in office for just a few weeks, hatched this plan to stagger funding deadlines for federal agencies in January and February.

However, this infuriated conservative Republicans who helped propel Johnson into the speaker’s chair only weeks ago. Just over half of the House GOP conference backed Johnson’s proposal on Tuesday, while Democrats overwhelmingly voted yes.

And on Wednesday, moderate and conservative House Republicans defeated the rule for the Commerce-Justice-Science funding bill, handing Johnson and other GOP leaders another stinging defeat even as members streamed out of the Capitol for the holiday recess. The leadership faced similar setbacks on the Agriculture, Transportation-HUD and FSGG funding bills. Labor-HHS, another hugely controversial spending package, hasn’t gotten a floor vote yet.

Yes, House Republicans have passed some of the less controversial bills during Johnson’s tenure, including the Legislative Branch and Energy and Water measures. The House also passed a $14 billion Israel package offset by IRS funding cuts, which the White House strongly opposes and isn’t going anywhere in the Senate.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), policy chair for the House Freedom Caucus, went to the House floor and angrily bashed the GOP leadership after members had bolted out of town on Wednesday, a bitter ending to a grueling 10-week marathon for the chamber.

“I want my Republican colleagues to give me one thing — one — that I can go campaign on and say we did. One!” Roy yelled during a speech in an otherwise empty House chamber.

— Andrew Desiderio and John Bresnahan

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