Lawmakers in both parties are predicting a GOP battle royal over federal spending at the start of the election year as Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) struggles to balance the demands from House conservatives demanding fiscal reforms with keeping the government operating.
The new Speaker was able to prevent a shutdown earlier this month without massive repercussions to his leadership.
After his predecessor, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), was unseated in part for bringing a funding measure to the floor that relied on Democratic votes, House conservatives gave Johnson “a mulligan” in November for basically doing the same thing.
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Ninety-three House Republicans voted against the funding measure, but there was no effort to end Johnson’s Speakership.
But Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) and other conservative members of the House Freedom Caucus are signaling they won’t give Johnson another free pass — even though he has limited power to get his way, given the Democratic control of the White House and Senate.
Roy said earlier this month that Johnson’s concessions to Democrats to pass a funding stopgap lasting until January and February are “strike one, strike two,” putting the Speaker at risk of getting punched out of his job if he cuts another deal that fails to make significant cuts to federal spending.
A GOP senator who requested anonymity to discuss the bitter fighting between mainstream and conservative Republicans over spending levels for 2024 said there’s no clear path forward.
“I want to know what we’re going to do the first day we come back from the Thanksgiving break. Will there be another minibus?” the lawmaker said, referring to a package of three or four spending bills.
Johnson was forced to cancel floor votes earlier this month on three different spending bills because of divisions within his conference.
The stakes for upcoming fight, Democrats and Republicans alike warn, will only get bigger as the 2024 election approaches.
President Biden looks vulnerable, as does the Democratic majority in the Senate. Yet Johnson’s majority in the House is also not safe, meaning leaders across the board will have to act carefully.
Senate Democrats say they are bracing for more brinkmanship.
“Realistically, we’ll see more of the same. There’s nothing about the December holidays that is going to produce magic in the House dynamic right now. They’re chaotically divided; they’re dysfunctional,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
“The basic problem is: There is a group of Republicans who are more interested in throwing grenades than governing,” he added. “That’s a recipe for disaster.”
The new Speaker traveled to Mar-a-Lago to meet with former President Trump shortly before Thanksgiving in an effort to shore up his support among MAGA rebels, setting the stage for a showdown with the Senate next month.
Now the Senate will focus on passing a “megabus” or “maxibus” of nine spending bills in hopes of setting up a conference negotiation with the House, but there’s little prospect of any broader deal before the new year, given the steep spending cuts demanded by House conservatives.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) says the deep cuts demanded by House Republicans don’t have any chance of passing the Senate.
He and Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) say they will not agree to spending levels below those set by the debt limit deal that McCarthy and Biden agreed to in May.
But some House conservatives say the $1.59 trillion discretionary spending cap that McCarthy agreed to is far too high, and they have called for cutting it by $120 billion.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), an outspoken fiscal conservative who has worked closely with members of the House Freedom Caucus, said “we’re going try to do everything we can” to get real cuts enacted in 2024.
“One of the reasons the Speaker lost his Speakership is they agreed to $1.59 trillion in spending, which is $300 billion more than we spent just four years ago. That’s a problem,” Johnson said, referring to McCarthy.
“The situation we’re in is a massive failure over decades; $33.5 trillion in debt,” he added.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is one of a growing number of conservatives in both chambers who say they won’t vote for any continuing resolution that merely freezes federal spending levels.
“I can’t support spending the same amount of money we’re currently spending, because that’s how we got a $33 trillion debt. We borrowed $1 trillion in the last three months. If we keep spending like we’re doing, we’re going to have a $2 trillion annual deficit,” he said.
Paul said conservatives want Johnson to pass the annual appropriations bills individually to maximize his leverage with Senate Democrats, setting up a prolonged negotiation that could wind up lasting months.
“There is still a conservative position to be had, and that would be that the Speaker continues to pass individual appropriations bills and that the Speaker insists that when they conference on them, they conference on each individual one,” he said, explaining that would give the House “12 different points of leverage … to reduce spending.”
The Republican lawmaker speaking anonymously said it would make sense for the Senate to next take up a batch of regular spending bills, because Democratic and Republican negotiators remain deadlocked over proposed border security reforms that Republicans say must be part of any emergency foreign aid spending package for Israel and Ukraine.
Some Republicans are floating the idea of setting up a deficit reduction commission as part of a broader spending deal as a way to mollify disgruntled conservatives.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) has introduced a bill with centrist Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) to establish a bicameral fiscal commission to find legislative solutions to decrease the debt.
“Maybe there’s a prospect of that happening,” Romney told The Hill, noting that Speaker Johnson has voiced support for a debt commission.
Senate Republicans recently invited former Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to speak to the Steering Committee before the Thanksgiving recess about his experience as a member of the “supercommittee” that Congress set up in 2011 to cut the annual deficit.
That bipartisan effort, however, failed to produce a compromise, which set the stage for across-the-board cuts known as sequestration to take effect under the Budget Control Act of 2011.
Congress later canceled sequestration after Democrats and Republicans chafed at cuts to social and defense programs.
Updated at 7:12 a.m. ET