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Johnson and House Republicans face reality

Today is Day 133 of Mike Johnson’s speakership and here’s what’s going to happen:

1) A $460 billion-plus FY2024 spending package will be on the House floor, with members scrambling to pass it before a partial government shutdown at midnight Friday. This legislation — more than 1,000 pages long — is six annual spending bills mashed up into one big minibus. In other words, this is precisely the kind of legislating Republicans vowed they’d avoid when they took over the House in January 2023.

2) The spending package includes 605 pages of earmarks worth more than $12.6 billion for both the House and Senate. Johnson does have one $7 million earmark in there — along with Louisiana GOP Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy — for construction on a medical facility at Barksdale Air Force Base. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries have some earmarks in these bills as well.

3) It was drafted behind closed doors by senior members of the leadership in the House and Senate, plus top appropriators. No one outside of this group saw it before its release Sunday night. No amendments or other revisions to the package will be allowed, or else the whole thing could collapse. Johnson is having the House consider the package under suspension of the rules, which requires a two-thirds majority for passage — and forces Republicans to rely on a hefty number of Democratic votes. Then it’s the Senate’s turn.

4) Late next week or early the following, if all goes according to plan, House and Senate leaders will roll out the final six spending bills — including the massive Pentagon, Labor-HHS and Homeland Security bills — for an up-or-down vote.

5) The legislation today and, in all likelihood, the second spending package due by March 22, will be supported by more Democrats than Republicans. In case you forgot, Republicans have the majority in the House.

There’s plenty of legitimate criticism of Johnson from members of his own leadership. The Louisiana Republican is slow to make decisions, they assert. He’s preoccupied with leaks. He has no plan on how to deal with getting new U.S. aid to Ukraine, Israel or Taiwan, some of this country’s most important allies.

But what is happening today on the House floor is the byproduct of two distinct dynamics.

Johnson’s predictable inability to break away from the spending deal cut by his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy, which is a real bipartisan compromise between the White House and Capitol Hill. Johnson became speaker 10 months into the Congress, limiting his leeway to change the trajectory of this high-stakes debate in any meaningful way.

Hardline conservatives’ all-or-nothing attitude has plunged the House Republicans into a dysfunctional majority. These GOP lawmakers wanted a year-long continuing resolution that would force tens of billions of dollars in cuts to social spending. President Joe Biden and the Democratic-controlled Senate were never going to allow that to happen.

In the end, the centrifugal force of appropriators and leadership looking to avert a shutdown was far too powerful for a small and universally loathed group of conservatives to overcome.

“Once [McCarthy] got a deal done, I’m sorry, the play has been called. You couldn’t pull it out, undo it, and start all over again,” said House Rules Committee Chair Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who is also a senior appropriator. “[Johnson] made a gallant try, and he got some symbolic additional cuts. But this is broadly still the same thing we had.”

Cole is referring to the Fiscal Reduction Act, the agreement that McCarthy reached with Biden last May covering the debt limit and government spending. It’s the basis for the legislation today, and the upcoming Minibus Part Deux — if and when it happens — as well.

In some way, Johnson also is handcuffed by the institutional structures that have trapped so many speakers in the past. House Republicans don’t stick together. They abandon their speaker at every opportunity. And that weakens Johnson’s hand with Democrats.

House Freedom Caucus Chair Bob Good (R-Va.) is a perfect example of the thinking that drives the hardline faction in the conference.

Before walking into a leadership meeting Tuesday afternoon, Good said there is “very little, very little in the way of policy wins” in the spending bill. He complained about the lack of GOP policy riders in the package and spending levels, which are roughly in line with the deal McCarthy cut last year.

“When we have one house, we ought to get half of our wins, shouldn’t we?” Good asked a group of reporters.

When we told Good that his logic was flawed because House Republicans need Democrats to pass anything, he angrily ended the gaggle and walked into the speaker’s office. When Good emerged, he refused to talk further.

But in the closed-door meeting, Good lectured the group that House Republicans should shut down the government in September, just six weeks before the election, because Democrats will try to lock in policy wins before a new Congress and potentially a new president.

Most of the lawmakers in the room disagreed with Good, according to sources in the meeting that we spoke to. But the fight over FY2025 spending is already being joined. And the right is already setting standards for Johnson seven months in advance.

— Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan

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