Congress left Washington Friday for the long holiday weekend with a fragile plan to prevent a government shutdown next week, as a revolt over spending brewed among hard-right House Republicans.
Funding for 20 percent of the government is set to expire on Jan. 19, and the rest expires on Feb. 2. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) have agreed on an overall $1.66 trillion spending deal for the 2024 fiscal year, but lawmakers won’t have time to enact it before the deadlines.
So the Senate on Thursday took procedural steps to be able to pass a stopgap funding bill, known as a continuing resolution or CR, to keep the government open while members work on long-term spending legislation. Members left town after that and are due to return on Tuesday.
But in the House, conservatives are pushing Johnson to renege on the budget deal. After stalling floor action on Wednesday in protest, they spent Thursday demanding that Johnson bow to their objections and touting plans to draft unspecified alternate ways to fund the government.
On Friday, Johnson rejected those pitches and told reporters that he’d abide by that financing agreement.
“Our top-line agreement remains, and we are getting our next steps together and we are working toward a robust appropriations process,” Johnson said.
That baffled members of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, who had been pressuring the speaker publicly and privately to walk away from his agreement with Schumer. Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), the group’s chair, said Thursday that the speaker was receptive to Freedom Caucus’s entreaties, but that he made no commitments.
“He has not rescinded it yet, but I am quite certain that he is legitimately considering alternatives,” Good said Friday, moments after Johnson told reporters he was not considering alternatives. “We need to cut spending year-over-year… We need to attach border security to it. We need to have border enforcement mechanisms and we need to stop the era of unpaid-for supplementals.”
He had told reporters on Thursday that the GOP should not be afraid of instigating a partial government shutdown if it could create leverage for spending cuts.
That left tensions simmering within the Republican conference and rekindled some of the anger that led to the ouster of Johnson’s predecessor, former congressman Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), over far-right animus on spending deals.
“You’ve got a razor-thin majority and divided government, so he’s got a tough row to hoe, but my belief is [you’ve] got to lay out a vision of where you want to go, set the target and then go achieve it,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.), a leading spending hawk. “I’m not interested in just defaulting to whatever Chuck Schumer and [the] White House say when we have the House.”
Outside the Freedom Caucus, though, other House Republicans warned that rejecting the deal Johnson reached with Schumer could have negative political consequences.
“We took weeks off last fall to elect a new speaker. I mean, there’s no way to spin a partial government shutdown as anything other than Republicans in the House of Representatives can’t govern,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.).
Some conservatives hoped to pass a year-long CR that would trigger mandatory spending cuts on both defense and domestic programs, with Trump-era immigration restrictions attached. But defense hawks in the GOP conference told Johnson they would sink that approach, forcing the speaker back toward his agreement with Schumer.
“Those are the numbers that we have to work with,’ Rep. Michael Lawler (N.Y.), one of 18 vulnerable Republicans who represent districts Biden carried in the 2020 election, said Friday. ‘And ultimately, we need to do two things: cut spending and secure the border. That’s the objective, and that’s what we’re working through. We have a week to go.”
Democrats openly marveled at Republicans’ bind.
“What is it that they don’t understand about governing and getting something done?” asked Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. “They don’t want to do nothing. They don’t know how to govern. They truly do want to shut the government down. No one on our side wants to do that. We’re trying to work very hard to get to sit down and get to a deal. It’s really, really incredible. … They should look for another job.”
Quipped Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who is set to retire in 2025 after nearly three decades in the House: “Hakeem Jeffries” — the House minority leader — “has the majority.”
President Biden and McCarthy landed on the overall budget structure in the spring as part of an agreement to suspend the debt limit. But the GOP conference’s right flank rejected it almost immediately, then ousted McCarthy from the speakership in October when he relied on Democratic support to enact a stopgap financing measure that didn’t cut spending. (McCarthy resigned from Congress at the end of last year.)
Congress passed a Johnson-backed CR in November that staggered government funding deadlines in an attempt to appease archconservatives, but the new speaker still needed votes from Democrats to pass the bill.
Now that law expires soon, and the Schumer-Johnson appropriations deal was supposed to set permanent spending levels until Sept. 30. Instead, when the deal was announced Sunday, seasoned legislators knew almost immediately another short-term law would be necessary.
“I think the timeline was clear that that would be very difficult, if not impossible,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), an appropriations subcommittee chair. “I wish we could get past the chaos in the House of Representatives and agree that keeping the government funded and open should be the minimum around here for doing your job.”
Johnson worked through the evening Wednesday into early Thursday to understand hard-liners’ demands, which included encouraging the speaker to renege on the entire funding proposal, giving the Freedom Caucus input on where funding is allotted — a job usually left to appropriators — or passing a one-year extension of current funding levels that would trigger a 1 percent cut across federal spending, according to multiple people familiar with the talks, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
At a meeting Thursday morning, roughly a dozen hard-liners told Johnson to go back to Schumer with a new top-line spending number. Others also insisted on attaching new immigration restrictions to any short-term funding bill, and some proposed drawing up a bare-bones bill to keep the government open — at lower spending levels than Johnson has agreed upon — while the speaker restarts talks with Schumer.
The Freedom Caucus members themselves are not entirely united on an approach, further complicating talks.
Multiple members said the speaker suggested during the hour-long meeting that he was open to incorporating their ideas.
“He listened when we had meetings. He knows we’re upset with the Schumer spending number. He knows we’re upset with no border,” said Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.). “He’s herding cats. I get that. But something’s got to give. And when they say ‘government shutdown,’ there’s a lot of different variations on that.”
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) echoed that sentiment, saying that Johnson — who has declared himself a MAGA conservative — claimed “he agreed with other conservatives, everything that we said,” and that she expected Republicans would ultimately draw up a new spending proposal.
Greene said she would work on a “very limited government funding deal” that “keeps the basic functions of the government going” but declined to elaborate on what that would entail.
The meeting ultimately generated enough goodwill that most of the members who had blocked House business on Wednesday allowed it to resume on Thursday.
“I think that the fact that he’s given a meeting, the fact that he’s demonstrating that he’s willing to listen to me and others, is a promising sign. As long as that continues, I’m willing to vote in good faith,” said Rep. Eric Burlison (R-Mo.).
Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this report.