". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


Johnson Braces for the Next Episode of ‘Can We Avoid a Government Shutdown’?

February 22, 2024

March 1 probably felt like a distant deadline when Congress picked it as the target of their next spending headache. Postponing the appropriations debates seemed like a good idea in January when optimism was high that members just needed “a few more weeks” to pass the legislation. But a few more weeks have come and gone, and the bills are exactly where they were a month ago: at a standstill.

Like everyone else, House Appropriations Committee member Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) knows the House is in a jam. “Right now, we’re scheduled to come back next Wednesday, and we will have all these bills that will be still sitting on our plate because, as you so rightly said,” he told “Washington Watch” guest host Jody Hice, “the House and Senate have failed to pass any of the appropriation bills [by the] March 1st deadline.”

The Alabaman ticked off the to-do list by agency — Military Construction-Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Energy-Water, and Transportation-Housing and Urban Development. “At this point,” Aderholt admitted, “[we] do not have our ducks in a row to pass those four appropriation bills. And if we do not, then we will have a [government] shutdown on March 1st.” In other words, 20% of the annual appropriations are due a week from Friday, Roll Call points out, and Congress doesn’t step foot in Washington until next week.

Complicating matters, the second wave of bills — a “heavier lift” in some people’s minds — comes due March 8, including the often-thorny Defense and State-Foreign Operations proposals. It’s not exactly a comfortable position for Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), who, in addition to staring down the twin obstacles of a Democratically-controlled Senate and White House, also has a demanding and fractured caucus of his own.

But negotiating from a position of strength hasn’t exactly been the GOP’s gift of late. In one of their rare opportunities to control a debate — the Ukraine-Israel-Taiwan aid package — more than 20 Senate Republicans kicked the leverage out from under Johnson, refusing to make border reforms a condition of their support. Now, dealing with trillions of dollars and almost as many personal priorities, reaching a consensus on five enormously complicated bills will be tough enough — let alone in three days.

“I think conservatives understand that Speaker Mike Johnson is ‘one of us’ and wants to do the right thing, in terms of holding down runaway spending that’s feeding inflation, securing the border, and pushing back against the Biden administration’s aggressive advocacy for taxpayer-funded abortion until birth,” Family Research Council’s Quena Gonzalez told The Washington Stand. “I also think people understand that he’s operating with a historically razor-thin Republican majority in the House, where he can’t afford to lose votes.”

When disgraced Republican George Santos’s seat flipped to Democrats in a special election last week, Johnson found himself with an even slimmer majority: two.

It’s a reality that conservatives will have to find a way to move past, Aderholt acknowledged. “I think most Republicans understand that with a two-seat majority, we’re not going to get everything that we want, but at least we need to get something. And that’s really the crossroads we’re at right now,” he said to Hice.

Unfortunately, “getting something” has become a lot more difficult than it should even in a wafer-thin majority. But, as Gonzalez points out, “What people may not realize is that several of these spending bills are being held up by a handful of moderate Republicans who oppose the pro-life provisions. Their constituents need to contact those offices and tell them it’s not acceptable for Republicans to kill pro-life provisions in spending bills. We expect Democrats to fight to kill these pro-life provisions — after all, it’s in the Democratic Party platform — but when a handful of Republicans do it hamstrings conservatives who are trying to fight for the unborn.”

He’s referring to a number of policy riders, language routinely attached to spending bills, that make it illegal for taxpayers to fund abortion, for instance. In this batch of legislation, conservatives have done their best to protect core values like marriage, conscience rights, women’s safety as it relates to the abortion pill, pro-life employees, and a number of other things. This used to be standard, uncontroversial text that is now, incredibly, being sabotaged by Johnson’s own party. Until Republicans get on board with that agenda, the debates will continue to go nowhere.

So, in this perpetual rock and hard place, what are Johnson’s options?

  1. Let portions of the government shut down and continue slogging through the last five appropriations bills (hoping the Senate finishes its nine).

This seems to be one of the more likely scenarios at this point. Some conservatives have already resigned themselves to this, even though it would be a difficult strategy for the GOP to message on. In Joe Biden’s hands, a government shutdown becomes a political weapon. And yet, “People are predicting a shutdown even if it’s just for a few days,” one Republican lawmaker confided in Axios. As far as Aderholt is concerned, there are “a lot of pros and cons and a lot of things that can be said [about shutting] down the government.” But obviously, he pointed out, “if we can avoid shutting down the government, I personally think it’s best — just because you do have a lot of unintended consequences. Also, the administration is in charge of [what shuts down], and they can make it very painful on Americans to say, ‘Look at what the Republicans are doing, they’re wanting to shut down the government.’”

  1. Roll all of the remaining spending proposals into a gigantic multi-trillion dollar omnibus that no one will have time to read or amend.

When Democrats are in power, this is their favorite way of governing. It allows them to stuff billions of dollars of pork and controversial projects past Republicans without debate or scrutiny. Unfortunately for them, Johnson would almost certainly not have the stomach — or the votes — to revert to the Left’s ways. Not to mention that it would probably mean the end of his short reign as speaker.

  1. Pass another short-term continuing resolution (CR) through April to buy time for Congress to finish its work.

If the speaker did this, it would be the fourth time the House has kicked the can on appropriations. Like a lot of conservatives, Aderholt has plenty of reservations about this approach. “A CR is not an ideal situation,” he said, “and I don’t want to make light of the fact that we’ll just pass another CR, because we’ve passed a lot of them. But if I knew that we could get some wins, especially on these social issues … I can vote for another CR — if I know that there is a win in sight. But it’s going to be very difficult for members of the Republican caucus to vote for another CR.” The idea would still face strong headwinds, since even Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) has publicly said, “You are not going to get another continuing resolution out of our conference.”

  1. Move forward with a full-year CR that would trigger an automatic, across-the-board 1% in spending cuts.

Thanks to a deal between then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Joe Biden last year, if these debates drag on past April 30, and Congress doesn’t finish its appropriations on time, automatic cuts take effect. Interestingly, this is the alternative getting the most traction with the Freedom Caucus. In a letter to Johnson Wednesday, the budget sticklers urged the speaker to consider moving forward with the idea, writing, “If we are not going to secure significant policy changes or even keep spending below the caps adopted by bipartisan majorities less than one year ago, why would we proceed when we could instead pass a year-long funding resolution that would save Americans $100 billion in year one?” the group asked. But what’s popular with the Freedom Caucus is unlikely to make it past Democrats’ or defense hawks, who will fight to keep certain budgets at their current levels.

At the end of the day, Democrats have a roll to play in all of this too. While the media aims all of its fire on the House, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has presided over the passage of a paltry three spending bills, four less than Johnson’s chamber. And as Aderholt points out, as hard as it’s been to get Republicans “all on the same page,” it’s been even more “difficult to try to certainly get the Democrats to go along with us. And so therefore, they’re sitting back and not wanting us to pass the appropriation bills.”

As usual, there’s no shortage of drama on the Hill. And as it plays out, Aderholt reminded people of the tight spot the speaker is in, through no real fault of his own. “You know Mike Johnson as well as I do. We both served with him. He is a true conservative. He’s someone who wants to do the right thing. And I want to do everything I can to back him up as we go forward in these negotiations.”

Suzanne Bowdey serves as editorial director and senior writer at The Washington Stand.