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Speaker Johnson navigates 'mission impossible' to avoid shutdown, without clear plan

Speaker Mike Johnson is facing a deadline to avoid a possible government shutdown on November 17. With splits inside his own party he can't afford to lose many votes if he pursues a partisan stopgap proposal.
Chip Somodevilla
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Speaker Mike Johnson is facing a deadline to avoid a possible government shutdown on November 17. With splits inside his own party he can't afford to lose many votes if he pursues a partisan stopgap proposal.

Congress has a week to avoid a government shutdown. But the new speaker is facing familiar GOP divisions trying to pass his party's own spending bills and still hasn't decided on a short term bill.

Speaker Mike Johnson is learning quickly that, although he may have received unanimous support to get the gavel, the sharp divisions among House Republicans over spending bills remain.

Two times this week, Johnson, R-La., was forced to pull federal budget bills from the floor after it became clear that Republican opposition meant they would fail to pass.

Now, there are just seven days left before the federal government is due to shutdown at the end of the day on November 17, not enough time to pass the full suite of annual budget bills.

Despite the time crunch, Speaker Johnson has not announced the details of his plan for a stopgap funding measure, which would temporarily extend government funding in order to allow lawmakers to sort out their disagreements on the full budget.

House GOP splits derail spending bills

The Transportation and Housing funding bill, which leaders pulled from the floor late Tuesday, ran into problems when a group of Republicans from the northeast opposed the bill's funding cuts to Amtrak. Conservatives insisted they remain in the bill.

Johnson pulled the Financial Services and General Government funding measure on Thursday, after moderate members of his conference opposed a provision in the bill that would have overruled Washington, D.C.'s abortion law.

One of the members opposed to the bill, Rep. John Duarte of California, pointed to Tuesday's election results in several states showing voter pushback to Republican efforts to restrict abortion rights.

"The American people are telling us very clearly they don't want Washington D.C. meddling in their abortion rights," Duarte said. "That's clear and we're trying to make sure we can deliver on that."

The Financial Services bill also faced opposition over funding for a new F.B.I. headquarters, which the government announced this week would be built D.C.'s Maryland suburbs.

After a proposed amendment to bar any funding for the building failed, conservatives including Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan threatened to vote against final passage of the bill.

"We've been pretty clear with the American people. We don't think the F.B.I. should be getting a new headquarters, plain and simple," Jordan said.

The conservative objections upset more moderate members of the Republican conference.

"For those who are mad about it, tough shit — it pisses me off," said Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon said.

"Don't blame all the FBI for Director and the Attorney General's behavior," Bacon said, referring to conservative frustration over the agency's investigation into former President Trump.

Johnson hasn't announced his stopgap spending plan

As the party tries to sort out its larger budget disagreements, Johnson is trying to put together a short-term spending plan — known as a continuing resolution — in order to keep the federal government open beyond November 17 and buy time for lawmakers negotiations.

He's considering a couple of options: one would fund federal agencies through sometime in January. The other, dubbed a "ladder" CR or "two-step" spending bill would extend government funding for some government agencies to one date, and separate out others and set a different date for stopgap funding for those. The idea for the ladder continuing resolution is to try to force the Senate into negotiations on some of the more contentious spending bills.

Some lawmakers worry the ladder approach sets up rolling deadlines for future possible partial government shutdowns.

Lawmakers expect Johnson to unveil a decision and a bill as early as Friday, and expect a House vote on the measure on Tuesday, just three days before the deadline to avoid a shutdown.

Stopgap measures, though, are also a contentious topic among House Republicans and that friction has made it difficult for Johnson to put together a proposal.

In October, shortly after then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., relied on Democratic votes to pass a short-term funding bill, he was ousted by a small group of House Republicans who were upset with the plan.

But there's no sign Speaker Johnson's job is at risk at this stage. Tennessee Republican Tim Burchett, who voted to remove McCarthy, told reporters that there is nothing being discussed for the continuing resolution that he thinks would lead to push to oust him.

"A lot of stuff built up to [firing McCarthy]," Burchett said.

GOP Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, who also voted to remove the last speaker, said that the negotiations with the speaker about "kickers or sweeteners" that could be added to the plan to assuage skeptical members.

Biggs said his proposal would push lawmakers back toward his preferred budget process: "twelve single subject bills which [Congress is] required to by law to get done in the first six months of the year."

There is also discussion about adding a bipartisan proposal to create a national debt commission to the short term spending bill.

But getting as many Republicans on board as possible will be essential for Johnson, who has only a wafer-thin majority in the chamber, if he wants to add any policy measures to the bill.

The top House Democrat, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, has said that his party will only support a so-called "clean" continuing resolution — a bill that extends government funding at current levels with no additional provisions.

Bacon said he didn't think the ladder CR was "the wisest move" but said he would back it because he doesn't want a shutdown. Other GOP members of the appropriations committee expressed reservations, but deferred to Johnson.

Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Dan Meuser suggested some GOP members are trying to use the annual spending bills to accomplish every policy goal.

He pointed to a saying, "the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time" and said, "here there are some that want to make giant leaps and correct everything in one bill." He agrees with reforming the F.B.I. but not defunding it, and says it's better to aim to make changes more incrementally.

"Many of those who are standing in the way of getting these appropriations bills through are coming up with, you know, minuscule or small parts of it that are that are just just blowing the whole thing up."

Slow going in the Senate

In upper chamber, lawmakers are trying to come up with a alternative stopgap proposal. Because of Senate rules, any plan will require sixty votes to pass, necessitating bipartisan support.

Senators have largely remained quiet as they wait for House Republicans to unveil a proposal. In remarks on the Senate floor Thursday, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said the only way forward was through bipartisan cooperation.

"I implore Speaker Johnson and our House Republican colleagues to learn from the fiasco of a month ago," Schumer said. "Hard-right poison pills that have zero support from Democrats will only make a shutdown more likely."

Schumer started the process that would allow the Senate to move to a spending bill sometime next week, if they have one ready for consideration on the floor.

But there are still hurdles in the Senate too.

Beyond getting agreement on a short term bill to avoid a shutdown both chambers are still grappling with a request for emergency aid for Israel, Ukraine, and the border.

After the House opted to pass a bill just with money for Israel paired with cuts to the IRS that were non starters in the Senate, leaders there are working to cobble together a broader national security funding package. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell backs the administration's request for Ukraine money but is insisting Democrats have to back some policy changes to current immigration laws.

A bipartisan group of Senators is working to come up with something both parties can agree on, but years of efforts to zero in on immigration reforms have yielded no progress.

Oklahoma GOP Sen. James Lankford is in the talks, but declined to discuss the substance of what's on the table. He said it's going to take more than more money, pointing out the White House indicated the need to change the current system.

"What's really needed is policy changes. And they're they're making the same statement from the administration side saying money's not going to fix what's happening at the border. It doesn't matter how much money you throw at it. The policy is bad at the border. We've got to fix the legal aspects of how they manage it. And then the administration actually has to enforce that law."

Lankford said the national security package doesn't have to move at the same time as the bill to avoid a shutdown.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deirdre Walsh
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Eric McDaniel
Eric McDaniel edits the NPR Politics Podcast. He joined the program ahead of its 2019 relaunch as a daily podcast.