The new speaker may have averted a government shutdown this week, but the major showdown over spending has merely been punted till January.
Now, Speaker Mike Johnson has just two months to forge consensus within his fractious conference over a series of spending bills that don’t have the full GOP support and are already dead on arrival in the Senate and White House – all while contending with conservatives who already ousted one speaker and swing district members who are tired of walking the plank and taking tough votes on bills that aren’t going to become law.
It’s a recipe for yet another spending showdown, more Republican infighting, and a series of complicated decisions for Johnson that members warn could have a much more lasting impact on his ability to govern his conference.
Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry explained that hardliners are willing to give Johnson more time to get this right, but that time is not unlimited.
“We understand the situation is not of his making, but moving forward we expect to see tangible results to move us down the field in the right direction,” the Pennsylvania Republican said.
Rep. Chip Roy, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, warned Johnson already has two strikes against him for moving a spending bill that didn’t cut funding and using a process to pass the bill that required a large number of Democrats backing it.
“The swamp won and the speaker needs to know that,” the Republican from Texas told CNN. “Look, he’s good man. We’ll sit down, we talked last night on the floor. We’ll go figure out what’s next, but I can tell you Republican voters are tired of promises to fight. We want to actually see change. And so you know, we’ll see what happens … but our approach shouldn’t be assumed when they’re needed and then get rolled on a suspension.”
For months, hardliners have argued they wanted regular order on spending, meaning passing bills one by one out of committee and on the House floor with a robust amendment process. But despite sticking largely to that model, Johnson is confronting the same problems Speaker Kevin McCarthy contended with: Republicans aren’t even able to coalesce around their own spending bills because of deep divisions over what conservatives and moderates prioritize and that’s before the hard work of negotiating with the Senate and White House begins.
This week alone, House Republican leaders ditched plans to move ahead with a bill to fund the Justice and Commerce departments after conservatives and a handful of members from New York tanked a rule governing debate of the bill. They also left town before voting on a bill to fund the Labor, Education and Health and Human Services departments. That came after leadership had to pull two other spending bills last week because they lacked the votes.
Rep. Nick LaLota, a Republican from New York, voted against the procedural rule Wednesday arguing that Republicans should start focusing on passing spending bills that are not wasting time.
“The amendments are going to fail, the bill is going to fail, it won’t get sent to the Senate, it won’t be signed by the president,” LaLota said. “We should regroup. Get back to the kitchen maybe choose some new ingredients, cook it a different way to ensure that the appropriations bills, which will not only fund our government but cut spending in the right places, are done with better deliberation, more intellectual honesty and not just for show.”
So far, House Republicans have been able to pass seven of their 12 annual appropriations bills. Each of those remaining bills presents a unique set of challenges with provisions that some parts of the party are demanding be included and other factions say are enough to sink the bill.
What’s played out over the course of the last several weeks is almost an impossible game of arithmetic for the new speaker. Leadership pulled a bill to fund financial services and general government last week after swing district Republicans rebelled over a provision that would have defunded a Washington, DC, law that protected employees from discrimination for their reproductive choices. But, the provision was an important priority for more than 50 Republicans, one source told CNN, making it impossible to simply pull out of the bill without cratering support.
Conservatives also were prepared to vote against the bill because it didn’t include an amendment they wanted to take away funding for the new FBI headquarters, meaning support was hemorrhaging on both sides.
Veteran appropriators have made the case that if Johnson can’t pass all 12 bills because of Republican infighting, he will have to go straight to conference with the Senate on the bills that have passed and then try to work out a path forward on the other contentious measures there. But, it’s possible that move could imperil Johnson with members of the House Freedom Caucus.
“If they want to pass the remaining five bills, then hopefully they will help us pass the remaining five bills,” said Rules Chairman Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican. “At the end of the day, we don’t have a lot of time. It’s important we get these bills done.”
Members of the House Freedom Caucus have argued they haven’t backed some of the bills because they haven’t gotten their amendments added. But appropriators have argued that those same members have had ample chances to vote on their policy riders only to find that the support isn’t there to do what they want.
“We have tried many of these amendments in committee, they didn’t pass. Now, they try them on the floor, they don’t pass,” Rep. David Joyce, an Ohio Republican, said. “They were promised an open rule and amendments. They have had the opportunity.”
For Johnson, his Republican conference is only one part of his challenge. Even if the House could pass all their bills. They’ll have to be negotiated with the Senate, which has passed just three appropriations bills, but passed the other nine on a bipartisan basis in committee. The Senate’s bills are at a higher spending threshhold that more closely track with the agreement McCarthy and President Joe Biden negotiated back in the spring as part of the deal to increase the country’s borrowing limit.
“Time’s a-wasting,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, said. “On both sides.”
Schumer has yet to bring the other nine spending bills to the floor, which Senate GOP appropriators have warned could also make things harder in January.
“I think he wants to process judiciary (nominations) at the expense of appropriations bills, which I think they need to address,” Murkowski said.
The reality is there won’t be much time for leaders to find a solution. Passing individual spending bills with a robust amendment process takes time, and Congress has a lengthy to-do list in December that includes conferencing and passing the annual National Defense Authorization Act, passing the FAA bill, trying to find a way forward to renew section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which expires at the end of the year, and also negotiating a package to send aid to Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan and the southern border of the United States.
The first deadline for spending will come January 19 just two week after Congress returns from their holiday recess. The second deadline will comes shortly after on February 2.
“We’ve just delayed the decision on whether or not there will be a shutdown,” said Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah.
CNN’s Manu Raju, Sam Fossum and Haley Talbot contributed to this report.