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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Hard right injects immigration into spending fight, raising shutdown fears

A congressional delegation observes a section of the U.S.-Mexico border in Eagle Pass, Texas, Aug. 8, 2023. The House Freedom Caucus has said it will not support any spending measure — even a stopgap bill to keep the government open while lawmakers negotiate — without a sweeping border crackdown.

By Karoun Demirjian

Hard-right House Republicans are threatening to block a stopgap bill to keep the government funded unless it includes a security crackdown along the U.S.-Mexico border, escalating fears of a shutdown within weeks and injecting the supercharged politics of immigration into an already fraught stalemate over federal spending.

The ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, whose demands for deep cuts have already stymied agreement on a spending package for the coming year, now say they are unwilling to support even a temporary measure to prevent a lapse in federal funding without a sweeping border measure that has little chance of making it through Congress.

The measure, which would revive policies championed during the Trump administration such as border wall construction, extended detention of asylum-seekers and expedited deportation of unaccompanied minors, was so draconian that GOP leaders barely managed in May to scrounge together the Republican votes needed to pass it. It has stalled in the Democrat-controlled Senate and would render any spending bill that carried it dead on arrival there.

It is the latest complication for Speaker Kevin McCarthy as he seeks to bridge the considerable rifts within his party over spending and prevent a shutdown that is all but certain to tarnish Republicans politically. It is slated to occur Oct. 1 unless Congress passes a temporary funding patch to allow more time for a deal. The situation could prompt the largest mutiny McCarthy has faced from the far-right since he struck a deal with President Joe Biden to suspend the debt ceiling and avoid a disastrous federal default.

Behind the scenes, McCarthy is toiling to persuade far-right lawmakers to abandon the tactic. He has privately warned them that trying to use the stopgap spending bill to strong-arm a one-sided border bill through a divided Congress risks scuttling the border security investments Republicans are trying to enact through the regular appropriations bills.

McCarthy and Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La. and the majority leader, argued to members on a recent conference call that the GOP’s spending proposals already mirrored much of the border bill and addressed most of the Freedom Caucus’ concerns, according to people who heard the call and described it on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it.

But the conservatives, still simmering with anger at McCarthy for striking a budget deal with the president that they regard as too spendthrift, are determined to turn the appropriations bills into the next battleground in Congress’ intractable fight over immigration and border security, even if it means holding the government hostage.

“Why on earth would we say, ‘Sure, Secretary Mayorkas, keep screwing over the people I represent, endangering us — and here’s a check to keep doing it?’” asked Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas and the ringleader of the effort, referring to Alejandro Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary. “I’m not worried about a fight over funding a government that most of the people I know can’t stand.”

Their gambit has prompted consternation among more mainstream House Republicans who are keenly aware that their party would be badly damaged by a shutdown. Some of them have argued that if the Freedom Caucus’ aim is to strengthen border security, their demands are self-defeating.

“As I’ve reinforced time and time again, the things you’d want to do to secure the border cost money,” said Rep. David Joyce, R-Ohio, who chairs the panel that handles homeland security appropriations. “It’s easy to say, ‘No,’ and, ‘We’re going to shut down the government,’” he said, but a lot of the people he’s seen talking about it “may not have been here in the past and may not understand the ramifications, potentially, of doing so.”

Joyce also argued that if Republicans failed to unite around the spending bills’ existing border security measures, they would lose critical leverage heading into negotiations with the Democrat-led Senate, where the pending homeland security appropriations bill does not include tough border measures.

“We can’t get into that negotiation unless we pass these bills,” he said.

There is little doubt that a stopgap bill will be needed to fund the government past the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year. The chances that the House and Senate can strike a compromise on a broader federal spending package within the next month are vanishingly slim, with the House still at odds over 11 of the 12 required bills and the two chambers also clashing in their approaches.

Under pressure from the hard right, Republicans in the House have sought to fund several agencies below the spending limits agreed to in the debt ceiling deal, while in the Senate, Democrats and Republicans agreed to provide billions more.

In a letter last week, members of the Freedom Caucus said their demand to implement the border bill would apply to any spending measure, including a temporary one.

Democrats previously rallied to help Republican leaders steer around opposition from the hard right and muster the votes to bring the debt limit deal to the House floor. But leading Democrats vow that if GOP leaders accept the Freedom Caucus’ immigration demands, they should expect no help from the minority party on a spending bill.

“Catering to these people — who have a track record of opposing all funding bills — would slow the flow of critical disaster relief to communities across the country and kill our chances of keeping our government open while we work to reach an agreement on final 2024 funding bills,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said in a statement. “House Republicans will need House Democrats to pass any serious funding bills, and they will not get our support on a bill that contains the Freedom Caucus demands.”

Senate Democratic leaders issued a similar warning, admonishing Republicans to pass spending bills capable of earning votes from both parties.

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