Pressure is ratcheting up on Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) as he returns to work this week aiming to push through a government funding deal to avoid a shutdown that could hurt the GOP in an election year.
Johnson faces major risks as he seeks to solidify the first major legislative deal of his tenure, including those from conservatives who say Republicans should be willing to shut down the government to secure the southern border.
“There’s incredible pressure on Speaker Johnson to step up as the highest-ranking Republican in Congress and get a deal that can pass. The last guy lost his job trying to do it,” one Senate GOP aide told The Hill, referring to former Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) ouster in October after he cut a deal to temporarily fund the government.
Johnson and Democratic leaders announced a deal on topline spending numbers on Sunday, largely modeled after a debt limit deal that McCarthy struck with the White House last year that prompted months of rebellion from hardline conservatives — but that Johnson said secured included new offsets.
The new Speaker, like McCarthy, has a tiny majority that seems only to be shrinking. With House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) out for cancer treatment until next month, it means losing just three GOP lawmakers on any vote forces Johnson to rely on Democratic lawmakers to pass major legislation.
There are some differences in play when it comes to Johnson and McCarthy.
While McCarthy had trust issues and damaged relations with a host of conservatives in his conference, Johnson is in more of a grace period with his members that gives him more leeway.
And unlike McCarthy, he is also working in an election year where Republicans want to avoid mistakes that would make it harder for them to hold on to and build their House majority in the fall. Republicans are eyeing full control of Washington as their odds for picking up the Senate grow and as polls show former President Trump with an edge on President Biden.
Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio), a House GOP appropriations cardinal, stressed that appropriators think a shutdown is “a bad idea.”
“When we shut down, it costs us $60 million a day,” Joyce said.
Under a two-tiered funding extension that Johnson spearheaded in order to avoid a single massive omnibus spending bill, part of government funding runs out on Jan. 19, and the rest runs out two weeks later on Feb. 2.
That leaves little time for Johnson to get the deal into legislative bill text form and usher it through the House in face of the GOP opposition.
“The difficult process of conferencing FY24 appropriations bills now begins under extremely tight timelines,” a House Appropriations Committee GOP spokesperson said in a statement. “The Committee remains focused on fighting for conservative wins as we wrap up this process.”
The problems at the southern border are adding to the pressure-filled environment.
Rabble-rousing House Republicans have tried to inject efforts to stem the flow of migrants into the government-funding talks — tossing a wrench into talks on avoiding a shutdown.
Numerous hard-line GOP members including Reps. Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Andy Biggs (Ariz.) and Matt Rosendale (Mont.) — three of the eight Republicans who forced McCarthy’s ouster — say Republicans should shut down the government if they do not win steps that make meaningful progress at the border.
Biden administration officials were alarmed at the tone of talks from Republicans during a Johnson-led trip by 60 members to the border outside Eagle Pass, Texas.
“[T]he border trip left me with more concerns about where they’re headed,” Shalanda Young, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, said of the shutdown threats from Republicans on Friday.
Young, a former appropriations aide with years of front-line experience in high-stakes shutdown fights, suggested how things move forward will be a test for Johnson’s leadership.
“While I think leadership understands it’s a bad path, the question is, can they hold back the floodgates?” she said.
Johnson has previously said that he does not want a shutdown but said that border issues are a top priority for the House GOP.
“In summary, we want to get the border closed and secured, first; and we want to make sure that we reduce nondefense discretionary spending. That is an important objective,” Johnson said in a press conference from the border trip.
The border isn’t Johnson’s only hurdle in the talks.
Some House Republicans quickly showed their discontent with Johnson’s topline spending agreement.
Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a leading voice on fiscal issues among the right flank, posted on X on Sunday that the topline spending deal “terrible” and said it “gives away the leverage” Republicans got from the debt limit deal.
The deal is modeled largely on the $1.59 trillion cap set in the Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA), the debt limit deal that McCarthy struck with the White House last year, plus a side agreement for further budget changes that would allow a plus-up for nondefense dollars for most of 2024. Johnson said Republicans negotiated billions in spending tweaks to the original deal that were opposed by the White House, including accelerating cuts to IRS funding and clawbacks of pandemic aid.
The House GOP had marked up its appropriations bills below that cap while the Senate marked up its versions of the bills above that number.
The spending negotiations were long criticized by the hardline House Freedom Caucus, which recently accused GOP leadership of entertaining a deal that would “obscure the actual spending numbers with more shady side deals and accounting tricks.”
After the deal was announced on Sunday, the Freedom Caucus posted on X that the deal was “even worse than we thought” due to the side deals, saying the “true total programmatic spending level is $1.658.”
“This is a total failure,” the group said.
Also at stake are numerous policy riders that Republicans had worked into their bills, such anti-abortion measures and stripping funds from diversity programs.
Johnson said in a “Dear Colleague” letter on Sunday that the deal provides a path to “fight for the important policy riders included in our House FY24 bills.” But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) in a separate statement warned that “Democrats will not support including poison pill policy changes in any of the twelve appropriations bills put before the Congress.”
Even before the topline, Republicans acknowledged the Speaker faces a difficult path forward.
“Funding’s going to be tough for him because he’s got a lot of House members worried that they haven’t worked on appropriations bills,” Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) said before the deal was announced, adding there is concern it could result in a year-long continuing resolution. “Time’s not on anyone’s side.”
Lawmakers are trying to avoid a continuing resolution, as it would harm the military and, depending on how it’s written, could prompt a 1 percent or larger cut across the board by the end of April.
Reports have indicated that if regular funding attempts fail, negotiators could write a stopgap funding resolution in a way that would avoid those cuts in question if they are forced in that direction.
Johnson has previously said he will not pass any more short-term stopgap bills.
“I’m hopeful that we can get a budget agreement soon, and I’m hopeful that we can avoid a shutdown given the progress we’ve made,” Schumer told reporters last week.
Alex Gangitano contributed
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