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


What to Think about Speaker Johnson’s Spending Deal

January 12, 2024

After a week of angry outbursts and threats, cooler heads may have prevailed in Speaker Mike Johnson’s (R-La.) Thursday meeting with Republicans. That would be a relief, considering that the first few days of 2024 haven’t exactly been a joyride for the Louisianan, who’s struggling to find a sweet spot on government spending that wins over his insatiable, wafer-thin majority. It’s a painful exercise in the challenges of the job, which only seems to be getting more difficult with the unrealistic expectations of his party.

“We’re having thoughtful conversations about funding options and priorities,” the speaker told reporters — a dramatic shift in how members characterized discussions two days earlier when a frustrated Johnson called on his caucus to stop trashing him on social media. “We had a cross-section of members in today, [and] we’ll continue to have cross-sections of members in. And while all those conversations are going on, I’ve made no commitments,” he explained.

Johnson, who now has tremendous empathy for the personalities his predecessor had to juggle, has just days to diffuse tensions and move forward with a plan to keep the government’s lights on. On Sunday, he’d announced a tentative agreement with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) for a $1.66 trillion package to finish out the 2024 fiscal year. Members of the House Freedom Caucus exploded, storming out of talks, killing procedural votes, and spewing regret to the press that they’d ever picked Johnson in the first place. Some even characterized the move as “surrender.”

While conservatives lobbed grenades, the speaker reiterated that he’s doing the best he can with the tiny bit of leverage he has. “I’m telling these guys, and I’ll tell the American people, we’re going to work every single day to get the best possible outcome.” For his part, Johnson has tried to take it all in stride, insisting that leaders are “going to advance our conservative principles. We’re going to demonstrate that we can govern well,” while also acknowledging there’s almost no wiggle room. “I’m going to keep trudging forward, but leadership is tough,” he admitted.

Other Republicans watched the drama unfold, shaking their heads at the demands that don’t match the GOP’s margins in the House. “It’s just easier for them to scream and vote no, because it takes a lot of courage to explain a yes vote and everything that’s inside of it,” Rep. Max Miller (R-Ohio) said.

In the deal that was on the table Sunday, the government would stay at its 2023 budget caps — the same ones that Kevin McCarthy included in his debt ceiling deal. Johnson explained that he’d also managed to win another $16 billion in cuts, including a $10 billion bite out of the IRS and $6 billion out of COVID’s slush funds. After Thursday, no one is quite sure what other concessions conservatives are demanding.

In the meantime, experts like Steve Moore, distinguished fellow in Economics at The Heritage Foundation and a senior economist at FreedomWorks, is urging Republicans to ratchet down their rhetoric and actually consider the playing field. On “Washington Watch” Thursday, he pointed out, “You’re going to have very, very few people on your show who want to cut government spending more than I do. So let’s get that straight. I think that we’ve got … a fiscal psychopath in the White House [with] what Biden has done to our country in the last three years with the $6 trillion of additional debt. … [W]e’re now at $34 trillion national debt.” And if Biden is reelected, Moore wanted people to know, “he wants to take the debt to over $50 trillion. So to me, am I going to sing Hallelujah over this deal? No, I am not. I think there’s a lot of problems with it, but I think we have to be smart here.”

Like other conservatives, Moore isn’t in favor of a government shutdown, “because I think it takes the eye off the ball. The eye has to be on the Democrats who are bankrupting our country.” And the fact of the matter is this: “These little skirmishes now aren’t going to make any difference if we don’t get Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer out of the power centers that they have right now. So I want the American people to know, yes, we have a bloated budget. Yes, we are on the verge of bankrupting our country. And the only way to prevent that from happening is to get these people out of office.”

Fracturing the caucus with these public spats doesn’t endear Republicans to the American people. Nor does it help move the conversation forward.

Host and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins agreed. “Bottom line, it’s elections. And elections have consequences on policies, spending, everything. But when you look at the current situation,” he pointed out, “and my viewers and listeners know that that I’m friends with Mike. He’s on the program a lot. But I even defended some of McCarthy’s efforts to move the ball down the field. I do not think that we win by burning the system down. I think we’ve got to change it. But if we just refuse to do anything, it’s not going to work.”

The fact is, Perkins insisted, Johnson has been backed into a corner by his ever-shrinking majority, and he’s “fighting to get the best he can.”

And sure, Moore said, “There are some times, like when Newt Gingrich was going up against Bill Clinton, when they came to loggerheads, and a shutdown of the government was the only way to move forward. I just don’t think this is the time for that. I think the media and everybody would be against the Republicans. We don’t normally win these fights.” The reality is, he continued, the GOP doesn’t “have the Senate, and they don’t have the presidency.” So, unfortunately, “we’re not going to be able to drive budget policy with those narrow margins and the Democrats controlling two-thirds of the power.”

Conservatives need to be realistic, both men urged. But if it comes down, in some form or fashion, to a debate about the border, that’s a different story. “That’s a fight worth having,” Perkins said.

“Well, that’s one of those 80-20 issues, where 80% of Americans are with you and me [and] Mike Johnson and the Republicans,” Moore replied. Conservatives should save their fire for that battle, Perkins said, not preemptively shut down the government over spending caps that they’ll be hard-pressed to improve right now.

In the meantime, it’s time for conservatives to stop airing their grievances and come together. “I like to use the analogy that Paul uses in the New Testament about the body of Christ,” Perkins said. “It’s one body, but many members. And we can see things differently. We can approach them differently, but we shouldn’t be beating up our own body.”

Exactly, Moore agreed. “Look, some of my best friends and people who I highly respect and work for don’t like this. And fine, reasonable people can disagree. But let’s not call people ‘sellouts’ and that kind of thing. This is not a sellout. This is a tactical decision about how we can take back power. … As you know, I work with Donald Trump. I’m his economic adviser. I guarantee you [that if] we put him back in the office, we’re going to get the economy moving. We get the budget under control. We’re going to, obviously, [tackle] the border situation. So it’s going to take new leadership. That’s the bottom line.”

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