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Mike Johnson is defending his decisions on funding. The hard right isn’t thrilled.

When Mike Johnson (R-La.) campaigned to become speaker of the House, he privately told Republicans that he could help manage the whims of hard-right members because they were cut from the same ideological cloth. But the debate over how to fund the government — which has consistently torn the conference apart — has made Johnson recognize his efforts can go only so far.

The House on Wednesday passed a Johnson-negotiated package of bills that will avert a possible partial government shutdown this weekend, but the hard right has once again called foul, accusing Johnson of abandoning his conservative credentials in favor of Democratic demands.

More than a dozen Republican lawmakers and aides, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to outline private conversations, portrayed Johnson to The Washington Post as coming to terms in recent days with the reality: that many on the right, particularly within the House Freedom Caucus, will not relent on their legislative demands that have prevented the slim majority from passing conservative priorities.

Over the next days and weeks, Johnson will need to hold his conference together just enough to ensure the government doesn’t shut down over a pair of deadlines, while also working to find a solution that the majority of his conference can support on Ukraine and border security. How he proceeds navigating a razor-thin two-vote majority will continue to test his resolve and the patience of many within the notoriously fractious conference. But some on the hard-right flank fear that Johnson’s positioning to again rely on Democrats to fund the government, given sizable Republican opposition, means the speaker could become like past Republican leaders who have ultimately chosen to sideline the Freedom Caucus, which staunchly represents Donald Trump’s base voters.

During a news conference Wednesday, Johnson defended his position as a sign that he is working “to turn an aircraft carrier” of how Washington deals with the yearly appropriation funding, which “takes a long time” to do right. Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), who previously chaired the Freedom Caucus, then put his arm around Johnson and defended him, reminding those present that he was constrained by parameters agreed to before he was elected speaker.

Republicans familiar with Johnson’s thinking said he is much more comfortable selling this funding plan and pushing back against critics than before because he helped shape the bills. Others see it as a speaker naturally growing into the job. But some Republican lawmakers privately mused that Johnson was much more decisive because he had run out of time to tackle the spending issue and had no alternatives.

“He wants to get this behind him, which one could argue he probably should have done this like five months ago,” one rank-and-file Republican said.

Still, Johnson’s supporters are heartened by moments over the past week that they believe show he is more willing than previously thought to sideline detractors in an effort to find workable solutions.

“As a speaker, you have to execute a play. Up to now, he had too many people giving him plays, and it seems now that he’s gotten time under his feet and understands the process, he’s calling the plays and starting to tell these folks that we can’t meet all your demands — on both sides,” Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) said, acknowledging that Johnson has also rebuffed some asks by moderates. “In the last week, I’ve noticed a little more pep in his talk and his direction.”

Several Republican lawmakers and aides noted the change in Johnson’s tone upon their return to Washington last week, with some pointing to an exchange in mid-February at a retreat in Miami. That gathering of the House Republicans’ Elected Leadership Council (ELC), convened by Johnson, brought together several governing-minded Republicans and hard-liners to discuss the conference’s priorities.

As several lawmakers in the pragmatic wing spent a meeting offering conservative policy compromises, most were rejected by far-right members at the table, according to several people familiar with the meeting. At one point, Freedom Caucus Chair Bob Good (R-Va.) was asked whether he and other hard-liners would follow the speaker’s lead in future decision-making moments. Good’s answer was not a definitive yes, giving members the impression that some colleagues were unlikely to ever accept compromises that they believe aren’t sufficiently conservative.

Days later, the first signs of a shift in Johnson’s demeanor came during a call with House Republicans where he warned that if they were “expecting a lot of home runs and grand slams” in compromise bills, they weren’t going to get them with a Democratic Senate and White House.

Johnson then returned to the Capitol and bluntly told Republicans from across the ideological spectrum at another ELC meeting on Feb. 28 that members who block rules or are unwilling to compromise limit the conference’s ability to score legislative slam dunks. He argued that the lack of cohesion weakens his hand when entering into bicameral and bipartisan negotiations.

He aired his frustration over Republicans publicly undermining each other, reading out loud a post from Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) on X that asked, “How many Americans have to die before House GOP cares more about our border than it does about … fear of shutdowns? Ukraine?” Johnson said he texted Roy shortly after his post to tell him that his rants were unwarranted.

Good then defended Roy, saying the Texas Republican wasn’t blaming the recent deaths of Americans allegedly at the hands of migrants who entered the country illegally on House Republicans but was lamenting stalled talks on border security reforms.

“This tweet has apparently caught the attention of some Republican colleagues. Good. Don’t fund it,” Roy posted hours after the meeting, referencing hard-liners’ call for Republicans to shut down the government.

Johnson devoted time in a weekly conference-wide meeting the following morning to reinforce his message, where he outlined his plan to avert a government shutdown by extending funding levels for a third time with the help of Democrats — a move that cost then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) his job.

One last extension, Johnson argued, would give both chambers time to finally vote through 12 new government appropriation bills, which Republican hard-liners have demanded for years.

Several spoke up against Johnson’s argument that passing six funding bills by this Friday and the remaining half dozen by March 22 — as agreed to by all congressional leaders and top appropriators — was their only option. They said he could instead put a vote on the floor that extends funding levels until Sept. 30, thus triggering a 7 to 10 percent cut in nondefense discretionary spending based on parameters agreed to by President Biden and McCarthy in last year’s debt ceiling deal and restore some conservative credentials.

“I heard we’re getting singles and doubles, singles and doubles. … usually when we get a single, the Democrats call that a double. Like, it’s often the same provision. They just think it’s better for them than us,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who proposed that spending cut.

But Johnson defended his plan, acknowledging the suggestion as a good one but that GOP leaders had conducted a soft whip count and that path did not have the support of enough Republicans to succeed, according to several people present.

“The comments that I caught from him were more direct at us, that he needs us to work as a team,” Rep. Carlos A. Gimenez (R-Fla.) said. “He’s the quarterback. Call the play. If the play works, great. If it doesn’t work, then call another play. But you got to call a play and we’ll follow you, and the ones who won’t follow you weren’t going to follow you anyway.”

Members of the Freedom Caucus and other hard-liners have consistently argued for significantly slashing government spending, with many publicly arguing that it is worth risking the House GOP majority if it results in lowering the deficit. Good said they are persistent in their asks because the yearly funding process has “resulted in nearly $35 trillion in national debt, 40 year high inflation, 20 year interest rates and an open border.”

“What we are obstructing is the status quo. What we’re obstructing is business as usual in Washington,” he said. “Now that’s not laid at the feet of the Republican House majority. But how the Republican House majority would keep funding the policies that we disagree with, whether it’s [critical race theory] or [diversity, equity and inclusion], or whether it’s LGBTQ and transgender surgeries, abortion funding … why would we continue to fund that? That’s what we’re trying to obstruct. That’s uncomfortable for some of our Republican members.”

Those familiar with Johnson’s thinking said his decision to move ahead on funding does not mean the speaker will ignore hard-liners’ requests in future policy discussions, given his background as a far-right ideologist. Johnson believes in the more institutionalist view that the United States should provide aid to Ukraine, but he has also demanded those funds be paired with border security legislation — even though congressional Republicans squandered a bipartisan Senate deal that included border revisions House Republicans called for.

Johnson decided not to tack on the border fight with government funding early in his tenure, because he believed doing so would have increased the chances of a government shutdown that Republicans would get blamed for, according to those closest to him. Over the last four months, Johnson did hear out members of the Freedom Caucus, often holding meetings with them after making a decision on funding, which some governing Republicans considered a waste of his time. But Johnson moved forward with his plan, his allies said, because members of the Freedom Caucus could not articulate strategically how a shutdown would garner wins for Republicans.

Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), a member of the Freedom Caucus, said he believes Johnson is a “good man” and “honorable” because he wouldn’t make side deals in future negotiations — like McCarthy did with Biden during the debt ceiling talks that set the parameters of the government budget this fiscal year. But he echoed many within the group who worry that Johnson is not fighting hard enough.

“I like Mike, but we just have a difference of opinion. You lose your leverage with negotiations when you announce to the world what you will and won’t do,” he said.

Johnson has often brought up in meetings with his congressional leadership counterparts — Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) — that ganging up with their united push to fund Ukraine immediately is not going to influence a change of mind. The speaker has made clear that his position is not just reflective of where a majority of the House GOP conference is, but also where the Republican voting base stands.

There is a recognition among other House Republicans that Johnson is trying to chart a path on Ukraine and border funding, but doing so is more complex due to the existing politics.

“Think about the learning curve he’s been under,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), a conservative institutionalist. “Being able to go the White House, be ganged up on, that hardens a person. And I think he learned a lot in that process. So I’m confident Mike’s learning on the fly and getting better every day.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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