Honeymoon over for Speaker Johnson

House Republicans are struggling with the same battles over government funding that led to the chaotic unseating of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), seemingly cutting any honeymoon short for new Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.).

GOP leadership this week yanked two spending bills from the floor amid disputes on spending and other controversial policy items. With a government funding deadline less than a week away, the conference seems hopelessly divided on how to avert a shutdown.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) shortly after GOP leaders pulled a funding bill from the floor Thursday said he’d thought Johnson would get a 30-day honeymoon.

“With what’s going on on the floor today, I think that indicates the honeymoon might be shorter than we thought,” he then added.

Members of the party’s right flank for months have thwarted efforts by their leaders to move partisan funding plans across the floor. Passage of those bills, their leaders have argued, would increase their leverage with Senate Democrats.

Now, centrists in the House GOP who had long acquiesced to the right flank’s demands under McCarthy are indicating they are no longer willing to do so under Johnson.

“Us mainline or frontline guys … in the Biden districts, we’re not gonna get walked over anymore,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said before the House left town Thursday.

“There’s gotta be compromise,” he told reporters, saying goodbye to the idea that “everything’s got to be aligned with the Freedom Caucus — that doesn’t work.”

The most immediate problem for Johnson is passing a stopgap bill to avert a government shutdown before the Nov. 17 deadline.

Johnson has two main options for a stopgap measure, known as a continuing resolution (CR), that would keep the government running: A “ladder” approach that would fund part of the government through one date and the rest through another, or a more “clean” CR that includes conservative policy priorities.

But Republicans are divided on those options. Veteran appropriators have balked at the idea of a laddered CR approach, while hard-liners have praised it and rejected the idea of a “clean” CR.

Johnson’s challenge, as it was for McCarthy, is in how to appease his members while pushing through a stopgap that can make it through the Democratic-controlled Senate by the end of Friday.

Bacon said he and other moderates have been working on language for an alternative stopgap that could get support from Democrats. It would attach legislation creating a commission to address the national debt to a clean funding extension.

Johnson has been getting squeezed from both sides of his conference.

Conservatives are demanding spending cuts and other provisions that moderates have balked at.

The bill pulled Thursday would have funded the Treasury Department and the General Services Administration — which manages government buildings. It included a policy rider that would have nullified a Washington, D.C., law aimed at preventing employer discrimination on the basis of reproductive health care decisions.

Moderates opposed the bill over that language, particularly after GOP losses in Tuesday’s elections were largely blamed on Republicans’ handling of abortion.

Some conservatives, meanwhile, opposed the bill because it did not include language to bar funding for a new FBI headquarters.

Rep. John Duarte (R-Calif.) said he’s expecting the abortion language in the bill “is going to be pulled out” and that members will be able to “vote on it in an amendment process next week.”

“And then if it gets incorporated into the bill, we will at least have had the chance to vote against it as an amendment,” he said. “Odds are most of these things aren’t making it through conference anyways.”

Earlier in the week, a group of moderates took issue with another funding bill concerning the Department of Transportation that included steep cuts to Amtrak funding.

“They can’t just work with those 20 guys on the other side,” Bacon said. He also expressed optimism about potential changes being made to help get the bill “in a better spot next week.” 

But any changes that could lead to a plus-up in funding are bound to ruffle feathers with some hard-line conservatives, as the right flank continues its crusade to slash overall funding levels. 

After a vote was pulled on the bill earlier this week, Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) said he also didn’t support the bill in its “current form,” saying it still “needs to cut spending,” even as it proposes pulling back and repurposing billions of dollars in IRS funding approved by Democrats in the last Congress.

The back and forth underscores the heavy lift Johnson will face satisfying the party’s various factions even after he deals with the latest government funding deadline.

Some House Republicans put a positive spring on their struggles, even though they have yet to pass five of their 12 annual funding bills.

“We’ve adopted 90 percent of the federal budget; the Senate’s adopted 17 percent. I suspect they may want to catch up, and we’re going to need some more time to complete the work,” Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.) argued to reporters this week.

But since abandoning the spending limits in the budget caps compromise brokered by the Biden administration and McCarthy earlier this year, the GOP-led House still has yet to have an agreement on overall top-line funding levels, let alone a bicameral deal. 

Hard-line conservatives have been pressing for steeper cuts in the outstanding bills, which also contain thorny provisions in policy areas that played a factor in the internal GOP resistance that led to leadership scrapping planned votes on funding bills this week. 

Between the House and Senate, there is only one bill that both chambers have passed that some are pressing for both sides to begin conferencing: the military construction and Veterans Affairs funding bill for fiscal 2024. But that number could change in the weeks ahead as some in the upper chamber, which passed its first three annual funding bills of the year earlier this month, eye a larger package for its remaining nine bills.

Sen. John Boozman (Ark.), the top Republican on the subcommittee that oversees VA funding in the upper chamber, said on Thursday some conversations on funding have been happening “informally” between both chambers. But he also acknowledged limitations without a bicameral agreement. 

At some point, he said, “you have to establish a top line, and then you can’t go any further, until you know how much money you’re going to spend.”

Even though Republicans were eager to coalesce around Johnson and end the three-week Speaker saga that paralyzed the House in October, they have made little progress in resolving their underlying tensions.

Asked if Johnson’s honeymoon is over, Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Texas) said: “Maybe with certain members it is.”

“Mike’s got a tough job. Got to pray for him this weekend. Man, that guy’s probably thinking what the hell did I do? What did I do?” Nehls said. “I don’t think the Lord Jesus himself could manage this group.”

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