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Speaker Mike Johnson may have saved Christmas on Capitol Hill, but Congress will be paying for it in the new year.
For the first time in roughly a decade, Washington faces no government spending deadline in December. That’s thanks to Johnson, who prevented a shutdown with a gambit designed to spare his party the type of legislative grab bag that conservatives often deride as a “Christmas tree.”
The House and Senate are far from off the hook. Johnson has promised he won’t put another “clean” funding bill on the floor, increasing the chances of a shutdown after the next spending deadlines on Jan. 19 and Feb. 2. The House GOP is so bitterly divided that some lawmakers worry they’ll engage in the same last-minute self-sabotage that plagued them this fall.
Spending is only one headache that Congress faces in the coming months. Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will duel over a half-dozen other major priorities, including Israel and Ukraine aid, reauthorization of foreign surveillance powers, border security and stalled military promotions.
Congress already punted on spending twice this year. Many lawmakers see no reason it’ll be any different in January.
“If you can’t do it by September, then you can't do it by the middle of November, and you can't do it by December, why the hell do you think you're gonna get it done in January?” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said. “There’s never any urgency around this place to get shit done.”
Progress on Ukraine, border and other fronts could in theory ease negotiations to avoid a shutdown next year. But with no signs that House Republicans are prepared to put weeks of self-inflicted drama behind them, lawmakers are preparing for a winter of woes.
Republicans are already privately joking that the second shutdown deadline of next year, when critical Pentagon funding will expire, occurs on Groundhog Day.
“If we don’t support our speaker, who we just all elected, it creates all sorts of issues for us,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who worried that his colleagues could undermine the speaker by continuing to squabble. “At best it weakens our hand. At worst, it makes it impossible to move things forward.”
Johnson hasn’t just challenged the Senate’s hopes of a year-end funding deal: He’s also ruling out another so-called clean stopgap spending bill, or a continuing resolution that doesn't include any blanket cuts to government funding. That means Congress only has a few weeks of session to reconcile divergent spending levels on 12 different bills — the House GOP wants lower spending than most senators — and then steer identical legislation through both chambers.
That's a very tall order in today’s Congress. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a member of GOP leadership and former House member, said Johnson needs to give himself “as much leeway as possible” to come out unscathed.
“The speaker says no more clean CRs. He’s put a gauntlet down and I don't know how he manages his conference,” Capito said. “It’s hard to put definitive statements out that you're going to have to walk back. And he may not have to walk it back.”
The House’s far lower spending levels are a sore point for some Senate GOP appropriators, who made severe cuts to appeal to conservatives in the chamber.
That will make things tougher on the back end: Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and ranking member Susan Collins (R-Maine) are holding to bipartisan spending levels based on this year’s debt ceiling deal. A Democratic-controlled Senate isn't going to accept some of the reductions in the House legislation.
And without a cross-Capitol agreement on top lines — the overall amount of spending — the House and Senate can’t even negotiate the less controversial areas, like money for veterans and military construction.
“We told leadership, we’ve got to have a top line if you’re going to send us over to negotiate with the Senate,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who is in charge of the House’s slimmed-down bill to fund the Interior Department and related agencies.
Until then, he warned: “It just can’t happen.”
Senate and House leaders of each party are starting to talk about a funding deal, Schumer told reporters last week. And in an interview, Collins praised Johnson’s hard line on no more continuing resolutions, saying “he’s right to keep the pressure on” Congress to get its work done. But Senate Democrats are worried Johnson created “two potential crises, even worse than” the November confrontation, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
At the same time, Johnson is confronting another huge headache: His own members are blocking him from bringing bills to the floor.
Just before leaving for Thanksgiving, nearly 20 GOP members tanked their own party's spending bill, retaliation for Johnson’s decision to lean on Democrats to pass a short-term spending stopgap and avert a shutdown. Conservatives derided the GOP’s partisan spending bill, which funded the Department of Justice and FBI, as “weak.” Even some centrist-leaning New Yorkers opposed the bill, arguing that the House shouldn’t waste its time on legislation that can’t pass.
Meanwhile, the hard-line Freedom Caucus and its allies — who successfully ground the House to a halt several times this year — are showing few signs of easing up on Johnson. Their red line: Johnson must show a larger plan for how he will cut spending and deliver on conservative policy wins, or they are done helping pass funding bills.
Johnson is trying to reassure conservatives, both in private meetings and on the House floor, telling them “he’s got a plan to actually cut spending and put the burden on the Senate,” according to Freedom Caucus member Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.).
Still, Johnson could get squeezed by both sides of the spending fight simultaneously. His conservatives will demand steep cuts and policy wins, which Schumer and the White House are certain to reject.
Some Republicans worry that dynamic will doom the House GOP's priorities all the way through a major deadline on Feb. 2 — or perhaps even longer, with internal conference politics getting even tougher as election season inches closer.
“We’re empowering Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden to keep doing what they’re doing,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas). And if it seems difficult to get GOP centrists to back a conservative spending plan now, Roy warned: “Wait until it's about three weeks out before primary season is kicking off.”