Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images
House Speaker Mike Johnson on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Nov. 01, 2023.
New House Speaker Mike Johnson may already be losing his first big clash with the hard-right lawmakers who are making the Republican majority and the nation ungovernable as time races down to yet another federal funding cut-off.
The Louisiana conservative, who was just lifted from obscurity to second in line to the presidency, may soon find himself in the position that doomed his predecessor Rep. Kevin McCarthy — needing Democratic votes to keep the government open.
A funding deadline of Friday night means Washington again faces a wild ride of shutdown brinkmanship caused by extreme GOP lawmakers who either cannot or don’t want to help run the country. The imbroglio is not just harming America’s image as a functioning democracy abroad. It has already wasted every week of the House majority party’s term since the summer and threatens to further weaken the key swing-district members critical to the GOP’s hopes of keeping the gavel in next year’s election.
Johnson on Saturday unveiled a complex two-tiered plan to temporarily fund the government, with a pair of deadlines in January and February for the passage of permanent department budgets.
The move could head off the Washington holiday-season tradition of shutdown dramas and mammoth all-encompassing spending bills. But the chances that a GOP majority that has trouble passing any bill could deliver on this intricate plan seem very low. Given the House’s record, Johnson may simply be setting the country up for two government shutdowns rather than one.
While the two-step approach appears to be a concession to the far right — which abhors what it calls “clean” continuing resolutions, or CRs, that keep government open temporarily at current spending levels — Johnson’s approach may already have backfired since it lacks the sweeping cuts that hard-right Republicans demanded even though they have no chance of getting them past a Democratic-run Senate and White House. “It’s a 100% clean. And I 100% oppose,” Freedom Caucus member and Texas Rep. Chip Roy wrote on X, conjuring up exactly the showdown that cost McCarthy his job.
Johnson’s task is so difficult because the tiny GOP majority means he can lose only a handful of members on any bill and still pass it with only Republican votes – hence the need to get help from Democrats on some issues and the consequent risk of further alienating far-right members of his conference.
This mass of political complications means Johnson heads into a vital week for his leadership having no idea how it will end and facing the possibility that his nascent authority could soon be in tatters.
Time is critically short given the need to muscle a funding measure through both the House and Senate in five days. Johnson is hugely inexperienced and has no pedigree in manipulating his party’s fractious majority or in finding legislative tricks that can unglue votes. Furthermore, the dynamics of a divided political system; a recalcitrant GOP right flank; splits between Republicans in the House and the Senate; and Democrats controlling the other chamber and the White House haven’t changed since McCarthy’s fall last month.
So Johnson is left with the same unpromising set of conflicting forces that felled McCarthy and that may be unsolvable.
The political and geopolitical costs of this mess are only growing. The House’s failure to govern means Israel is still waiting for an aid package as it battles Hamas in Gaza. (Johnson did pass $14.3 billion in aid for the Jewish state but offset the funding with cuts to the Internal Revenue Service to appease hardline conservatives, making it a futile gesture the Senate won’t accept.) Ukraine’s hopes of receiving another massive US aid package are receding given the House’s incapacity to act and increasing opposition to the lifeline among far-right conservatives.
So the key question this week may be whether hardline Republicans will give their new leader any more leeway than they gave McCarthy and allow him to stave off his first crisis with some Democratic votes. Johnson comes from the far right himself. But any compromises with Democrats will begin the process of erosion of hardline support and Johnson’s transformation in the eyes of right-wing backbenchers into an establishment figure guilty of wanting to govern. That’s a slippery slope to potential attempts to oust him.
Still, Johnson’s two-pronged approach — known, in a new contribution to the impenetrable lingo of Congress, as a “laddered CR” — does have the virtue for Republicans of requiring House Democrats to consider their own political risks. Since the new speaker did not include massive spending cuts demanded by the hard right in his plan, Democrats could see their own political blowback if they do not back it. That’s because a government shutdown could have broad impacts, including the eventual delay of pay to the military.
Trump looms over the House – and the year to come
House Democrats are yet to solidify their position but did note Saturday that spending cuts weren’t included in Johnson’s plan. The White House, however, issued a searing response to the proposal, calling it “a recipe for more Republican chaos and more shutdowns – full stop.”
“With just days left before an Extreme Republican Shutdown — and after shutting down Congress for three weeks after they ousted their own leader — House Republicans are wasting precious time with an unserious proposal that has been panned by members of both parties,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre wrote in a statement.
The word “extreme” — used twice in the statement — hints at the White House’s strategic thinking. It fits with imagery President Joe Biden and his campaign are using in his escalating confrontation with ex-President Donald Trump, the runaway Republican front-runner two months before voting begins in the GOP primary. Facing alarming poll numbers — including a survey last week showing Trump beating him in key swing states — Biden is keen on the comparison to the ex-president’s extremism that helped him win the 2020 election.
Trump spent the weekend making Biden’s point for him, vowing in language resonant of demagogic autocrats to root out “radical left thugs that live like vermin” if he wins a second term and targeting special counsel Jack Smith and his family.
Trump may also complicate things for Johnson. The former president’s influence on far-right Republicans is huge. In the funding drama that felled McCarthy, Trump called for a shutdown, perhaps reasoning that the chaos and potential economic damage could deepen feelings of national malaise that may boost his calls for strongman leadership. Already, one of Trump’s most prominent acolytes, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, has blasted Johnson’s plan as a “clean CR.” Greene also spent the weekend complaining that the new speaker wasn’t rushing to reignite the GOP impeachment inquiry against Biden.
As with the White House, Johnson’s language explains his strategy. “I wasn’t the architect of the mess we are in,” he said on a GOP conference call Saturday. This approach can be read as a plea to Republicans — who voted for him amid exhaustion and frustration after weeks of feuding over the speakership — to give him time and space since he’s new in the job. By recalling his poisoned inheritance, Johnson also reminds his troops of the chaos that could ensue all over again if they fail to back him.
Johnson also faces a complex set of scenarios in even getting his plan to a floor vote this week. And time is so short before Friday’s deadline because the Senate is likely to adopt a contrary approach by passing a clean extension bill amid little enthusiasm among senators in both parties for Johnson’s approach.
“We are going to proceed in the Senate on a clean CR, without gimmicks, without ladders,” Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“It does worry me that the House process requires you to come back and deal with half the budget on one date, and half the budget on another date. That sounds to me a little bit of a recipe for failure,” Murphy said. Still, Murphy did not rule out Johnson’s approach, adding that he was willing to “listen to the case that they’re making.”
But given the near-impossibility of outlining government funding that the most extreme members of the GOP majority will accept, it may already be too late for listening.
The US government is back on the edge of a cliff.
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