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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Conservatives revolt anew over Johnson deal to avert shutdown

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) at the Capitol in Washington, on Jan. 10, 2024. A dozen hard-line Republicans ground business to a halt in protest of the deal Speaker Mike Johnson struck with Democrats to avert a shutdown, leaving the funding package in limbo. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

By Catie Edmonson

Conservatives thrust the House back into chaos earlier this week, grinding business to a halt in protest of the spending deal Speaker Mike Johnson struck with Democrats to avert a government shutdown and leaving the funding package in limbo.

A dozen hard-line Republicans defected from the party line to tank a routine procedural measure, blocking consideration of a pair of GOP bills in what amounted to a warning shot by members of the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus that they would not stand for the agreement. As the measure failed, members of the group could be seen in animated discussion with Johnson and his deputies on the House floor.

The Republican revolt underscored Johnson’s predicament in trying to steer the spending deal through the closely divided House, where it has enraged a sizable bloc of Republicans, while keeping his grip on his job. The upheaval came as it was becoming clear that Congress would most likely have to resort to yet another short-term spending patch — something Johnson had previously ruled out — to buy time to push a bipartisan deal to fund the government.

The scene on the House floor Wednesday was a procedural protest that was once seen as all but unthinkable in the chamber but that right-wing lawmakers used repeatedly last year against then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy to protest his spending deals before they eventually deposed him.

Now, Johnson, R-La., finds himself facing the same kind of challenge just three months into his speakership, as he searches for a way to avoid a politically disastrous shutdown. Right-wing lawmakers say they would prefer a shuttered government to funding bills that keep spending essentially flat, rather than slashing it as they have demanded.

“We’re making a statement that the deal as has been announced — that doesn’t cut our spending and is going to be passed apparently under suspension of the rules with predominantly Democrat votes — is unacceptable,” Rep. Bob Good of Virginia, the chair of the Freedom Caucus, told reporters.

The agreement announced over the weekend by Johnson and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader, essentially hews to the bargain that President Joe Biden struck with McCarthy last year to suspend the debt ceiling. The hard right angrily opposed that measure, which passed the House with mostly Democratic votes, and had hoped to scale back. It also includes $69 billion in spending that was added in a side agreement, which conservatives sought to block altogether.

Johnson has argued that the deal is the best Republicans could hope for, given their tiny majority in the House and Democrats’ control of the Senate and White House.

He has pointed to measures on which Republicans insisted to help offset the cost of the package, including speeding up $10 billion in cuts to IRS enforcement and clawing back $6 billion in unspent COVID dollars and other emergency funds, and called the agreement “a down payment on restoring us to fiscal sanity in this country.”

“It was a tough negotiation,” Johnson said Wednesday at a news conference in the Capitol. “We got it done. I think it’s the best possible deal that conservatives and Republicans could get under these circumstances.”

But conservative hard-liners in his conference were livid about the deal and vented their frustration at a closed-door meeting Wednesday morning, claiming that Johnson had surrendered to Democrats by honoring the deal McCarthy had negotiated.

“We cannot fight and fold at the same time,” said Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, who was visibly furious as he left the meeting.

In an interview on Fox News, Johnson said he shared the irritation of his ultraconservative colleagues but was not in a position to deliver what they were demanding.

“I’m frustrated too, but remember we have a two-vote margin in only one chamber,” he said. “Only in the House is where we have the majority. And so we have to work with the numbers we have and get the best we can.”

The blowup on the House floor Wednesday came as Johnson is laboring to figure out how to translate the agreement into legislation that can be passed into law in just a matter of days, before a pair of shutdown deadlines that begin Jan. 19.

Lawmakers on the Senate and House appropriations panels are now trying to break down the total spending agreed to into 12 individual spending bills that fund the government.

In any year, it is an arduous process. This year’s work has become all the more complicated because House Republicans filled their funding bills with deep spending cuts and conservative policy dictates that Democrats refused to entertain.

Publicly and privately, lawmakers in both parties have conceded that it is unlikely those 12 bills can be negotiated, written and passed before the first shutdown deadline — meaning that lawmakers would need to pass a temporary stopgap spending bill, known as a continuing resolution or CR, to prevent a partial government shutdown.

“The obvious question is how long does the CR need to be?” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, said Tuesday.

Johnson previously pledged that he was “done” with such stopgap measures — the type of bills the right flank of his conference detests — after he passed one in November using Democratic votes to avert a shutdown. He refused on Wednesday to tip his hand on whether he would put such a bill on the House floor.

“We’re going to advance this, we’re going to push it aggressively, and I’m very hopeful we meet the deadlines,” he said.

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