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Speaker Mike Johnson

Inside Johnson’s shift in strategy on government funding

With few options and the shutdown clock ticking, Speaker Mike Johnson is trying to do what he can to shift the dynamics of the government funding debate.

For the first time, Johnson is making explicit to Democrats and the White House that he’s willing to shut down federal agencies unless he has a global agreement – of sorts – on all 12 FY 2024 appropriations bills.

Here are the basics of what Johnson is proposing:

Johnson has offered to shift existing government funding deadlines from March 1 and March 8 to March 8 and March 22.

But Johnson is only willing to do that if he has an agreement with Democrats on the four bills due to expire on March 1 – Agriculture, Energy and Water, MilCon-VA and Transportation-HUD – plus two other measures, Interior and Financial Services and General Government. Those six bills would be extended to March 8 under this plan.

The remaining six bills would be extended until March 22. This group includes some of the thorniest spending measures, such as Defense, Homeland Security and Labor-HHS.

“Any CR would be part of a larger agreement to finish a number of appropriations bills, ensuring adequate time for drafting text and for members to review prior to casting votes,” Johnson Press Secretary Athina Lawson said in a statement.

In this offer, Johnson also is making an explicit threat – if the Louisiana Republican doesn’t have a bipartisan agreement in hand by Friday, he’s not willing to pass a short-term CR to avert a shutdown. Johnson will let government funding lapse starting at midnight Friday. Four bills expire at that point.

For their part, Democrats were cautiously optimistic about these latest developments.

“We’re making good progress,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer repeated several times as he left the Capitol on Tuesday night.

A short-term CR – and that’s what this is – makes sense in several ways. It would allow appropriators more time to finish drafting six complex bills; it would eliminate the threat of a partial government shutdown on Super Tuesday, March 5, as 15 states and one territory cast presidential primary votes; and most importantly, all federal agencies would be open on March 7, when President Joe Biden gives his State of the Union address.

There are a few dynamics driving Johnson’s decision-making process here:

Johnson and the rest of the Big Four – Schumer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries – don’t have an agreement to avert a shutdown. And after Tuesday’s “intense meeting” in the Oval Office with Biden, it wasn’t entirely clear the quartet could achieve that.

If Johnson went to House Republicans and asked them to pass another clean CR without a detailed plan to end this funding crisis, he could lose his job. A big part of Johnson’s maneuvering here is self-preservation.

Remember: These kinds of course changes have become a hallmark of Johnson’s speakership. Plans shift drastically without much notice. Lawmakers are often settling into one strategy when the entire scheme changes. It’s neck snapping.

Even if Democrats do go along with this plan, GOP conservatives may see this as a ploy to buy more time on bills that they will end up rejecting anyway. The House Freedom Caucus and its Senate Republican counterparts may renounce this plan and vote against it. But it could pass anyway with Democratic votes and a pocket of Republican votes.

None of this changes the overall dynamic that House Republicans aren’t likely to notch any real policy wins in these funding bills. That’s going to drive the hardline conservatives nuts. Will that end Johnson’s speakership? Stay tuned.

In reality, Republican conservatives want a yearlong CR that automatically will cut spending across the board. Most of those cuts would fall on non-defense domestic spending rather than the Pentagon or military programs. GOP conservatives argue Democrats care more about those programs anyway. So the political price for Republicans is pretty low, they claim.

But Johnson has very few options here that don’t involve triggering a government shutdown, and it’s already five months into FY 2024. Johnson cut a deal with Schumer on topline spending seven weeks ago. Yet the two parties – especially House Republicans – have dragged out fights over abortion, guns, and social spending in crafting final bills.

The challenge that Johnson faces is that the rest of the Big Four and the White House are negotiating on these bills as if they were an omnibus – because they sort of are. But Johnson and House Republicans are strongly opposed to any hint of a giant year-end omnibus.

So Johnson is stuck shifting bills between dates and trying to create smoke to obfuscate the fact that party leaders and the White House are doing exactly what they always do – crafting 12 bills behind closed doors and jamming them through Congress very late in the process.

The House comes back into session this evening. House Republicans will meet Thursday morning, their first get-together in a couple weeks.

– Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan

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