Newly minted Speaker Mike Johnson is running smack dab into the same spending problems that plagued his predecessor, raising the prospects of a government shutdown if Congress doesn’t act between now and next Friday and further exposing divisions within the conference.
House Republican leaders were forced to abruptly pull two year-long spending bills from the floor this week amid opposition from both ends of their badly divided GOP conference. And Johnson is still grappling with a strategy to keep the government’s lights on without sparking a right-wing rebellion, with the current funding patch set to expire in eight days – an all too familiar dynamic for Republican leadership.
GOP Rep. Max Miller of Ohio, responding to leadership pulling final passage of the House Financial Services and General Government bill on Thursday, called his party “embarrassing” and “incredibly upsetting.”
And he specifically called out some of his Republican colleagues who keep attaching hyper partisan amendments to must pass spending bills.
“If the American people are looking at the amendments that we’re voting on, it’s a huge disappointment,” he said.
With time running out, Johnson has yet to tip his hand – both publicly and even privately with top Republicans – on which funding route he will pursue. Republicans have been weighing multiple options, including a more straightforward stopgap bill with some added sweeteners, or a more complicated idea that would extend funding for government agencies in two separate batches, known as a “laddered” approach. The conference has been divided over which option to pursue, with appropriators in favor of a clean stopgap and members of the Freedom Caucus pushing the laddered approach.
“He’s gonna listen to everybody, including the Freedom Caucus, he’s gonna listen to you know, he needs almost every one of us to get anything across,” said Rep. John Duarte of California, who represents one of the swing districts won by President Joe Biden. “And I think the sentiment in the conference right now is to support him as best we can.”
Johnson has been meeting with the various ideological wings of his party in recent days as he weighs his options, and members who have spoken to him believe he’ll reveal a decision before the end of the week. But the internal discord over spending suggests the honeymoon period for Johnson - who is just 15 days on the job – may already be nearing its end, though conservative hardliners have suggested they are willing to give him a longer leash to govern than former Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
“I think there’s a honeymoon period here. I’m not sure how long it lasts, maybe 30 days,” said Rep. Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican. “With what’s going on the floor today, I think that indicates the honeymoon might be shorter than we thought. And every time the CR expires, the speaker is putting his head in the lion’s mouth.”
Internal struggles over spending bills
So far, the House has passed seven of its 12 annual spending bills – three of which were passed since Johnson secured the speaker’s gavel. All of them, however, are dead on arrival in the Senate. And their remaining five bills are proving to be among the most challenging and contentious, as leadership continues to pursue partisan bills with only Republican support amid a razor-thin majority.
It’s a dynamic that has only further exacerbated tensions between the moderate and conservative wings of the party, which had already butted heads in the wake of McCarthy’s unprecedented ouster.
“What we’ve been trying to do is get 218 votes with Republicans only, and about 20 guys on the right keep dragging it over and then lose it. It’s not workable,” said Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska swing district Republican. “So we got to find something that’s a give and take for everybody in the conference. Knowing you still got to negotiate with the Senate, and you’re gonna get a more bipartisan bill when it is all said and done.”
The transportation bill was yanked earlier this week because moderate Republicans from the northeast were opposed to transit cuts. And the Financial Services bill was facing opposition from both moderates, who were balking over language to block a DC law that bars employers from discriminating against employees over their reproductive health choices, as well some members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, who were unhappy that some of their amendments – including one to defund money allocated for a new FBI headquarters – didn’t get adopted.
GOP Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Byron Donalds of Florida told reporters that despite losing the amendment vote to defund money allocated for a new FBI headquarters, they still wanted to see the language adopted and made clear to leadership a bloc of conservatives would be opposed.
“I told Mike that I thought we needed to work on that concern,” Jordan said. “We’ve been clear with the American people. We don’t think the FBI should be getting a new headquarters. Plain and simple.”
And there are problems on the horizon with the rest of the House GOP’s spending bills. That includes the Agriculture bill, which has been facing problems over contentious abortion language, as well as the Commerce-Justice-Science funding measure, which includes FBI funding cuts that moderates are against and conservatives are demanding.
“We can’t act like the FBI has been operating on 100% full capacity in integrity. That is not true. So why are we giving them a new car?” Donalds, a member of the Freedom Caucus, said. “I got kids. If my kids aren’t doing what they are supposed to be doing, I don’t buy them a brand new Lexus.”
Government shutdown strategy still in flux
Johnson is hoping to get conservatives on board with a stopgap spending bill – something McCarthy was punished for – by arguing they just need more time to pass their yearlong funding measures.
But serious questions remain over whether they’ll be able to ever pass those bills, with some GOP appropriators calling to just immediately move to trying to negotiate those bills with the Senate – a move that would surely infuriate the right flank.
And further complicating matters for Johnson, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries has made clear Democrats would only accept a clean continuing resolution.
Jeffries said that if Republicans can’t come together in bipartisan fashion to fund the government “then the only approach is to pass a continuing resolution at the fiscal year 2023 levels.” He also slammed a laddered continuing resolution approach as a nonstarter, calling it a ”right wing joyride which would crash and burn the economy.”
While a number of veteran appropriators and swing district Republicans are urging Johnson to keep the short-term spending bill as “clean” as possible, meaning not adding extraneous policy or cuts to spending, those members do recognize there is some liability for Johnson here.
“There is some political risk to that. Ask former speaker McCarthy,” Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma, said.
And conservatives have continued pushing for additional spending cuts and a laddered approach that would likely be dead on arrival in the United States Senate.
“Mike’s talking about a two-step approach with some good language attached to the CR,” Jordan said.
Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, a hardline conservative, said he is open to backing a stopgap bill – but only if it has additional conditions attached. Some of the ideas that have been kicked around include a statutory debt commission and border security money.
“I think there needs to be certain, what I’m calling kickers or sweeteners, or something like that, that actually turn the trajectory down in Washington where we make sure we start going back to 12 single-subject bills,” Biggs said. “If it’s clean, I’m against it.”
Majority Leader Steve Scalise indicated to reporters that both funding options are still on the table and leadership will make a final decision “soon.” But there isn’t much time to act. The government runs out of funding on November 17 at midnight ET. And in order to have a vote by next Tuesday, leadership needs to release bill text by Saturday in order to abide by their rule to allow members 72 hours to read a bill.
“We have talked about both options with our members. When you have arguments that are being made for both the laddered as well as a clean CR that have been discussed by our membership, we have to continue honing that and then we are going to make a final decision,” Scalise said.
Rep. Marc Molinaro of New York, a swing district Republican who has been in meetings with Johnson, said the speaker has “been very good to not influence the conversation.”
“He has said that a government shutdown is not acceptable and that we ought to send the most conservative thing that gets over the finish line as we can,” he said.
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