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Mike Johnson

Johnson signals openness to negotiate directly with White House

We have two pieces of big news this morning on behind-the-scenes machinations related to border security talks and government funding.

Johnson floats opening negotiations with Biden. Speaker Mike Johnson told House Republican freshmen on a private conference call Thursday that he may try to negotiate directly with the White House on changes to border security and immigration policy, according to multiple sources familiar with the call.

The view inside Johnson’s operation is that any Senate-negotiated deal is unlikely to pass the GOP-controlled House, so it may be time for the Louisiana Republican to try to open a channel for talks with the Biden administration.

Let’s be clear: The details here aren’t fleshed out in any way. Johnson has been publicly saying that Democrats and the White House should accept H.R. 2, the House GOP’s hardline border security and immigration bill. President Joe Biden and Democrats have rejected this proposal. Johnson has also urged Biden to take executive actions to try to stem the influx of migrants.

At this point, it’s uncertain if Johnson would want to negotiate border policy changes as part of a government-funding bill or a national-security supplemental package, as Senate negotiators have been trying for weeks.

But Johnson, who just spent two days at the U.S.-Mexico border, seems to want to get in the game here.

To get a sense of the gap between the White House and Johnson’s operation in the border-security debate, read this memo, which Raj Shah, Johnson’s deputy chief of staff for communications, will send around today.

On spending: Johnson separately is seeking billions of dollars in additional spending cuts — especially in Covid relief funding — before making any deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democrats on FY2024 funding levels.

Schumer is looking to make this happen while trying to stave off GOP efforts to slash domestic programs. Schumer wants to make sure the non-defense discretionary spending topline figure doesn’t go below $772 billion, which is the Fiscal Responsibility Act-mandated level plus the “side deal” hammered out by Biden and former Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

The goal is for Democrats to be able to tout the fact that domestic spending isn’t being cut below FRA levels. For his part, Johnson needs to sell any deal to hardline conservatives by pointing to spending cuts beyond what McCarthy signed off on last spring.

Johnson is pressing to speed up IRS spending cuts, as well as pushing for roughly $6 billion in rescissions of already appropriated Covid funding. There’s possibly a couple billion more in spending cuts needed on top of that, sources familiar with the situation said. Democrats seem amenable to accelerating IRS cuts scheduled to kick in several years from now, believing that the additional money the agency is getting right now is enough to go after tax cheats.

Yet some House GOP conservatives want Johnson to renege on McCarthy’s side deal, potentially jeopardizing tens of billions of dollars in non-defense funding. These House Republicans believe the “side deal” between McCarthy and Biden is just that — and McCarthy isn’t here anymore.

Johnson, Schumer and their aides have been negotiating privately for weeks now and could clinch an agreement soon, we’re told. Of course, both Johnson and Schumer will need a healthy number of lawmakers from the minority party in their respective chambers to get this done. Nobody has all of the leverage here.

There’s a bipartisan desire to avert what would amount to steep spending cuts to both defense and non-defense programs if Congress resorts to a continuing resolution to fund federal agencies through the rest of FY2024. Depending on the length of any CR, different levels of spending cuts are mandated by the FRA unless Congress waives it.

Remember: Before agreeing to quickly pass the FRA last spring, Senate appropriators and defense hawks like Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) sought written assurances from Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that the Senate would work to avoid these types of cuts. That meant finishing FY2024 appropriations in time to avoid using a CR, as well as passing a defense-focused supplemental package to make up for what they saw as a Pentagon-funding shortfall.

The question many senators are wondering is whether the latter will be somehow paired with the first of two funding deadlines over the next month — Jan. 19 and Feb. 2.

Schumer was noncommittal when asked about that possibility this week but cited “good progress” on funding.

“We’ve got to get agreements on each of these,” Schumer said, referring to government funding and the supplemental. “We’ll see how the two of them fit together, if they fit together at all.”

A new Congressional Budget Office analysis released Wednesday said a year-long CR would lead to tens of billions in spending cuts — especially on the non-defense side — depending on when it’s passed. How much would be cut eventually would be up to the Office of Management and Budget under that scenario.

But the CBO, like everyone else, is guessing right now because the situation is both fluid and complex.

“Significant uncertainty surrounds the effects of the limits on discretionary funding contained in section 102 and section 101 of the FRA. Ultimately, funding will depend on the actions of lawmakers and on OMB’s decisions about sequestration,” CBO Director Phillip Swagel told House Budget Committee Chair Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) and Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), the ranking member.

— Andrew Desiderio, John Bresnahan and Jake Sherman

Presented by The Coalition to Project American Jobs

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