It’s November, which means it’s time to start the clock on the next government shutdown deadline. The continuing resolution that Congress passed at the last minute on Sept. 30 expires Nov. 17, and House Republicans are even more poorly equipped to deal with that reality now than they were under now ousted Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Now that Rep. Matt Gaetz led a MAGA rebellion to drum McCarthy out of a leadership role, the threat of a shutdown is possibly even greater. For one thing, the House Republicans spent nearly the whole month of October at war with each other. trying (and failing several times) to elect a new speaker. From Oct. 3 until Oct. 25, no legislation made it to the floor for a vote and Republicans spent almost all of their time fighting with each other rather than trying to figure out how to come up with a government funding plan that could pass the House and the Senate.
The threat of the House just bungling its way to a shutdown is even greater with McCarthy out of the picture because the guy they finally landed on (in the fourth try at finding someone who could get enough votes) is a legislative cipher. Newly installed Speaker Mike Johnson has never chaired a committee and never held a leadership position in the six years he’s been in the House. He sponsored five uncontroversial bills that made it into law and a few very controversial ones, like his version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which have not. As a highly ideological back-bencher, Johnson hasn’t had to figure out how to make deals with various blocs of the Republican conference. He hasn’t had to figure out how to count votes. He hasn’t figured out who he can trust, which in the House GOP conference is probably nobody, anyway.
So here’s a relative newbie in the speaker’s chair, “leading” a fractious caucus that is capable of turning on him at the slightest provocation. (The motion to vacate the chair, the mechanism Gaetz used to oust McCarthy, still exists.) What Johnson lacks in experience is replaced by an astonishing bravado that is reflected in the ridiculously ambitious agenda he set for his term. That starts with passing seven appropriations bills in the next two and a half weeks—when some of the bills haven’t even been passed out of committee yet.
The appropriations bills that are still waiting to come to the floor are among the traditionally most difficult to pass along party lines: Labor, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Commerce/Justice/Science, and Financial Services. One, the Agriculture bill, has been tied up for months in an intra-party fight over abortion. This funding bill covers the Food and Drug Administration, and there is a provision in the underlying bill that would reverse the FDA’s approval of the abortion pill being available by mail. A handful of moderates refuse to advance the bill with that provision in it, while a bunch of hard-liners refuse to pass the bill without it.
It’s not hard to see who eventually folds in that scenario—after all, the moderates just elected the most avowedly anti-abortion member ever to be their leader. But if Johnson can ram it down the throats of his GOP conference in the House, he’s not going to be able to do the same with the Senate. It’s still going to take time to resolve that and other issues in these funding bills. Johnson’s plan is essentially the plan McCarthy was operating under: pass all of the funding bills, with drastic cuts, to show the hard-liners that he’s serious about cutting government spending so that they’ll agree to vote for a continuing resolution to keep the government from shutting down. He’s got just 17 days to do that.
Meanwhile, the Senate is still plugging away, doing the only thing it can by attempting to pass combined “minibus” appropriations. They reached a bipartisan agreement on funding levels, and all 12 of the appropriations bills have made it out of committee. They’re continuing work this week on the minibus that combines Agriculture/FDA, Military Construction/Veterans Administration, and Transportation/Housing and Urban Development bills. Because everything takes longer in the Senate, wrapping up the nine other bills before Nov. 17 is highly unlikely.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hasn’t given any clues yet as to how he intends to deal with the next continuing resolution, but it will possibly include the combined supplemental emergency funding for Ukraine and Israel that President Joe Biden has requested. From inside his MAGA bubble, Johnson has made his position on that clear: The funding will be larded with poison pills that everyone will have to swallow.
He’ll learn soon enough that it doesn’t work that way in his own conference, much less in the Senate and the White House.
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