Two weeks into his tenure as the 56th speaker of the House, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) remains popular with House Republicans. But you need votes, not popularity, to avoid a government shutdown ― and Johnson is struggling to find those.
For the second time in a week and the third time this year, House Republicans on Thursday abandoned one of the 12 bills Congress is theoretically supposed to pass to fund the government. Republican leaders feared a bill funding the Securities and Exchange Commission and other financial regulators would fail, and pulled it from consideration.
They did the same with a transportation and housing funding bill on Tuesday. In September, under then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), a bill funding the Agriculture Department actually lost a floor vote.
The financial services bill’s failure underscores the challenge Johnson faces as the first big test of his speakership: avoiding a government shutdown ― now just 8 days away ― without repeating McCarthy’s tactic of using Democratic votes. That means uniting the fractious conference, something leadership failed to do on this week’s spending bills.
Both the transportation and agriculture bills were subject to complaints from both moderates who thought they cut too deeply, and hardliners who thought they did not cut enough. With only four votes to spare (a margin that will fall to three when the Democratic winner in a special election in Rhode Island is seated soon), the party has little room for error.
Still, it’s clear House Republicans, aware of how their extended period without a speaker damaged their brand, want to hand Johnson a win.
“Many of us want to support the speaker, and if he provides leadership and however he decides to go through this procedurally, I think the conference is going to support it,” said Rep. John Duarte (R-Calif.), one of the party’s moderates. “We like him. We want him to be successful. The tectonics are still the same as they were under Kevin McCarthy.”
“It’s important that the conference get behind him and help him,” said Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Texas), an anti-spending hardliner.
Democrats remain skeptical the newbie speaker will be able to devise and quickly pass a plan.
“The new speaker is the new speaker and very new. I think he’s handled this pretty cavalierly, frankly,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who is the top ranking Democrat on the committee that wrote the financial services bill. “We should have done something this week.”
Republicans have insisted they do not want a massive, year-end “omnibus” funding bill that would cover most government agencies and instead said they want to have regular order, where each of the 12 bills that fund most agencies and programs outside of Social Security and Medicare are debated and voted on individually, and then sent to Senate.
But now one quarter of those bills have not been able to cross the finish line in the House, with two more yet to be voted on, and the government is only funded through Nov. 17. The Senate has been moving at glacial pace as well, having passed one bill covering three areas: transportation-housing, financial services and veterans programs.
Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), when asked about the one-bill-at-a-time strategy, said reporters should instead ask the Democratic-controlled Senate why it had not passed more bills.
“We’ve got seven appropriations bills passed. How many has the Senate passed? You guys run cameras over there?” Roy said. Republicans note they have passed bills dealing with a much larger percentage of annual funding when compared to the Senate, but that’s mostly due to having passed defense spending.
While the Ag bill and the transportation bill went down amid fights over spending, the financial services bill appears to have fallen victim to a slightly different issue: Republican members upset that their amendments were not approved and who threatened to vote against the bill.
“They’re just angry that most of the amendments that were killed were conservative amendments,” said Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.).
If the GOP can’t pass funding bills meant to serve merely as opening bids for negotiations with the Senate, it raises the question whether they can pass a stopgap funding bill that the Senate would need to quickly adopt in order to avoid a shutdown.
House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said Thursday any stopgap bill would need to continue government funding at the current rate, a demand unlikely to fly with at least some anti-spending Republicans.
And while Jeffries said Democrats were not asking for “our policy preferences,” which left some room open for a potential trade of spending levels for incremental policy changes between the two parties, he also said, “There’s not an extreme [Make America Great Again] Republican policy rider that I think we would find acceptable.”
Republicans had hoped McCarthy’s ouster and the subsequent intraparty feuding that followed meant Johnson would have the ability to bring the competing wings back together and consolidate support behind a single strategy to avoid a shutdown.
A few ideas have been floated, such as allowing some parts of government to shut down at different times in the future if their funding isn’t approved, but there was no consensus at a party meeting earlier in the week.
Republicans could have potentially avoided some of these problems by voting on a budget resolution setting a cap for annual funding, which would have at least committed them to working toward that number as each of the bills came up.
In fact, under a 1974 law, that’s how the process is supposed to work: both chambers agree to a budget resolution first with a topline number, and details of the exact distribution of funding gets worked out in the individual bills.
But Republicans haven’t taken up a budget resolution, despite the House Budget Committee adopting one several weeks ago. The resolution itself hasn’t even been filed formally in the House, weeks after the committee’s approval, which is unusual.
“I got everybody [among Republicans] in the committee to support it, and they are a great representative sample of the different districts and the politics of everybody’s districts,” House Budget Chairman Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) told HuffPost.
But Arrington said he likely would not file his budget until there were close to 218 commitments to vote for it among Republicans. Given the difficulty of the spending bills so far and the nebulous nature of the budget — its only binding feature being the topline spending cap — that may not happen soon.
On a similar note, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) said Republicans should punt and vote for a stopgap bill that lasts through September of 2024. That would trigger automatic spending cuts in the spring and keep Johnson from meeting McCarthy’s fate, he said.
“Every time something expires, the speaker is putting his head in the lion’s mouth. And I would advise not to do that any more than you need to.”
Arthur Delaney contributed reporting for this story.