The lights are going to stay on in federal government offices, and also in the suite of the House speaker, Mike Johnson’s, at least for a few more weeks. Up to now, it hadn’t been clear that both could happen at the same time.
Mr. Johnson, who has been in his new job only since Oct. 25, had to scramble to prevent the government from shutting down this Friday, and he managed to pull it off. He came up with an oddly structured stopgap bill to keep the government open until early next year, which the House passed on Tuesday and the Senate late Wednesday. President Biden has agreed to sign it before the deadline.
Thus for a moment there was a feeling of bipartisan warmth on the House side of the Capitol. But it’s almost certainly a false spring, because within a day, Republicans were fighting one another over extremist demands, the far right was raging about the swamp and failure theater, and veiled threats were made that Mr. Johnson had better get with the spending-cut program fast. In this House, every tiny step forward is immediately followed by bigger steps in the other direction.
If nothing else, Mr. Johnson performed the most basic function of his job. It’s hard to praise him for that, but until Tuesday, it wasn’t at all clear that Mr. Johnson had the inner strength or legislative savvy to make it happen. This is the same guy who has devoted most of his political bandwidth to preventing all abortions, “cross-dressing” and same-sex marriage, and a few days ago, he refused to allow Israel to get any military aid unless it was accompanied by a cut to the Internal Revenue Service.
When it came to keeping the government open, would he have the guts to be reasonable? The last speaker who prevented a shutdown, Kevin McCarthy, was booted from his position by Republican extremists for working with Democrats to pass a stopgap bill.
Mr. Johnson might have tried to appease the howling kennel on the far right by throwing it a treat in exchange for support, as he did with the I.R.S. enforcement money. But on this bill, he didn’t. There were no policy riders or crazy demands for cuts, and as a result, all but two House Democrats voted for it. Republicans, on the other hand, split into their usual camps. Most of the caucus — the 127 members who are, for convenience’s sake, called centrists, though few of them really are — voted for the bill, but 93 said no. Many of them said they oppose the idea of stopgap bills on principle, and they don’t care what damage a shutdown would do to the economy or the country’s reputation.
Any of those 93 could call for Mr. Johnson’s ouster, but that’s not going to happen this round. The calculation seems to be that the new speaker is still in some kind of honeymoon period, that no one wants another embarrassing speaker fight or that members want to get home for Thanksgiving without a shutdown hanging over their heads. The far right never trusted Mr. McCarthy, but feels a kinship with Mr. Johnson’s fringe cultural positions. But underlying it all is the desire for some running room for the big spending fight to come this winter.
The stopgap bill is weird because it punts that fight to two dates. On Jan. 19, funding will run out for a group of agencies including those handling transportation, housing, energy, agriculture and veterans’ affairs. On Feb. 2, funding will run out for everything else, including the Pentagon. The danger of that approach is that the far right could create a partial shutdown on Jan. 19 of agencies they don’t care about, which is the kind of bloody trophy many of them would be proud to carry home and wave around.
That kind of threat could really become reality, along with a full shutdown on Feb. 2, because the extremists are eager to start demanding their favorite policy provisions in the full-year spending bills for each agency that will be necessary after the stopgap. (Mr. Johnson has said he won’t do any more stopgaps, known as continuing resolutions.)
Take the bill that pays for the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration, for example. The far right has been trying for weeks to insert in it a provision that would prohibit abortion pills from being distributed by mail. That requirement isn’t popular even among Republicans, let alone Democrats, and the House has been unable to pass the bill. The impasse, which is also about overall farm funding levels, will need to be settled to avert an agriculture shutdown.
Another example is the bill to pay for the Justice, State and Commerce Departments. The extremists want huge spending cuts there and have demanded to slash the budget for the F.B.I., in servitude to Donald Trump’s vilification of the agency. That isn’t going to happen, but if they insist on it in the post-stopgap negotiations, those three departments might be forced to shut down while adults try to work out a compromise. One sign of the intransigence to come occurred on Wednesday, when right-wingers blocked that bill out of anger at the stopgap bill, joined by Democrats who would never consider those kinds of cuts.
These are the kinds of fights many House Republicans really want, and this week’s interim bill just kicks them down the road for a couple of months. Mr. Johnson gets a very temporary positive grade for not creating chaos before the holidays, but the bigger test is coming, and it could kick off a very contentious 2024.
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