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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Far right balks as Congress begins push to enact spending deal

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) walks to the House floor in the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023. Johnson will most likely have to rely on substantial Democratic support to pass the spending bills. (Al Drago/The New York Times)

By Carl Hulse

Congress earlier this week began an uphill push to pass a new bipartisan spending agreement into law in time to avoid a partial government shutdown next week, with House Speaker Mike Johnson encountering stiff resistance from his far-right flank to the deal he struck with Democrats.

Ultraconservative House Republicans have panned the $1.66 trillion agreement Johnson made with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., saying it is unacceptable.

The agreement essentially hews to the bargain that Congress passed last year to suspend the debt ceiling, which the hard right opposed at the time and had hoped to scale back. It also includes $69 billion in spending that was added as a side deal, money that conservatives sought to block altogether.

“This is a total failure,” the far-right House Freedom Caucus, a group of Republicans who have proved a thorn in the side of a series of GOP speakers, wrote on social media.

“I am a NO to the Johnson Schumer budget deal,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., wrote on social media. “This $1.6 Trillion dollar budget agreement does nothing to secure the border, stop the invasion, or stop the weaponized government targeting Biden’s political enemies and innocent Americans.”

The backlash from the extreme right underscored anew that Johnson will most likely have to rely on substantial Democratic support to pass the spending bills underlying the agreement. It also raised questions about the viability of his plan to try to attract Republican backing to spending measures by inserting conservative policy dictates aimed at restricting abortion rights and what Republicans see as “woke” administration policies.

Democrats say they will fight the addition of such policy riders. If a large bloc of Republicans opposes the spending bills, the speaker will either need to drop the policy provisions to secure Democratic backing or face a shutdown.

“Democrats will not accept any Republican poison pill policy changes,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, declared in a statement.

The result is that Johnson finds himself in a predicament similar to the one that led to the ouster of Kevin McCarthy last fall — overseeing a minuscule majority while facing a potential government shutdown and having to cut a deal with Democrats in the Senate and the White House that is certain to draw opposition and an outcry from the far right.

It is not clear whether disgruntled right-wing Republicans will try to depose Johnson as they did his predecessor. But they have already signaled that the latitude some of them afforded him during his first weeks in the job is vanishing, and their patience is wearing thin with his capitulations to Democrats.

Some Republicans suggested that Johnson was merely bowing to the reality of divided government.

“Are we learning that negotiating with the Democrats in the White House and Senate with a slim majority is hard and you can’t get everything you want, no matter who is in the Speaker’s office?” Rep. Mike Collins, R-Ga., wrote on social media.

Democrats in the House and the Senate have so far expressed support for the deal, which also has backing from many Republicans in the Senate, where both parties had pushed for even more spending.

“I’m encouraged that the speaker and Democratic leaders have identified a path toward completing” this year’s spending package, said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “America faces serious national security challenges, and Congress must act quickly to deliver the full-year resources this moment requires.”

Democrats suggested Monday that they had gotten the better of the deal and were able to achieve their original goal of holding the line on their push for $772 billion in nonmilitary spending.

“And that $772 billion was precisely the number we reached,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Monday. “Not a nickel — not a nickel — was cut.”

He and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen also sought to downplay the impact of $10 billion in accelerated cuts to IRS enforcement funding won by Johnson. Instead of being spread across two years as initially agreed, $20 billion in cuts would be imposed this fiscal year.

Since it was awarded $80 billion through the Inflation Reduction Act, the IRS has been racing to modernize its antiquated technology and beef up its teams of tax collectors to crack down on tax evasion. Yellen expressed optimism that even if some of the funds were taken away, those efforts would be able to proceed.

“In the short run, certainly the medium run, the IRS would be able to continue its important work in modernizing our tax system,” she told reporters after an event in Virginia.

The spending agreement, announced Sunday, would provide a slight increase in Pentagon spending to $886.3 billion. After the deal was struck, the Appropriations Committees in the House and the Senate went to work crunching numbers and applying those spending levels to the 12 measures that fund the government.

Four of the bills expire Jan. 19 and the remaining eight, including legislation funding the Pentagon, would lapse Feb. 2. To have even a chance of hitting the first deadline, the committees will have to operate at warp speed considering that the fiscal year actually began Oct. 1 and not a single bill has even come close to passing Congress.

“We now have a framework agreement to allow us to finally begin the hard work of negotiating — and passing — full-year spending bills,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

With the shutdown clock ticking, senators returning to the Capitol on Monday raised the possibility of a short stopgap measure to give Congress a chance to finish the spending bills and avert any government disruption. Johnson had earlier ruled out another stopgap measure and has so far not indicated a change in that position.

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