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Both chambers near decisions on another stopgap spending bill

Speaker doesn't rule out a continuing resolution despite earlier pledge; some Republicans say a shutdown is preferable

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., arrives for the House Republican Conference meeting in the Capitol on Wednesday.
Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., arrives for the House Republican Conference meeting in the Capitol on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

​Speaker Mike Johnson dropped his adamant opposition to any more short-term funding patches on Wednesday, saying he wouldn’t rule out a continuing resolution even though that’s not his preference.

Johnson, R-La., said it was still “pedal to the metal” on trying to get the fiscal 2024 spending bills done, including the first batch, which is due Jan. 19. But in comments to reporters after a House GOP conference meeting, he appeared to soften his tone on a CR.

“I’m not ruling out anything, committing to anything, other than getting these appropriations done,” Johnson said. “And I think we can and we’re pushing everybody hard.” 

Senators on both sides of the aisle Tuesday said it was clear another temporary patch was needed because there just wouldn’t be enough time next week to beat the first deadline, particularly given the cumbersome Senate floor process.

Sources familiar with the discussions said they expect the Senate to move first on a stopgap spending measure, which could make it easier for Johnson to put it on the floor in his chamber if it looks like there’s little choice and time is running out. A March end date is under consideration, sources said.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters Wednesday that leaders in that chamber would “make an assessment tomorrow” on how much progress they’ve made and next steps.

[Short-term stopgap bill appears likely as funding talks drag]

There is still substantial opposition to another CR among GOP conservatives, some even preferring a shutdown to that prospect if it’s a short one.

“If we’re talking about working on some policies, working on funding for a few days, then yes, I think [a shutdown] is better than a CR,” Republican Study Committee Chairman Kevin Hern of Oklahoma said Wednesday.

One possibility is to allow a two-week partial shutdown of the agencies funded by the Jan. 19 bills — Agriculture, Energy-Water, Military Construction-VA and Transportation-HUD — with the idea that lawmakers could still wrap everything up and pass all the bills by the second deadline, Feb. 2.

Under this scenario, critical functions like veterans health care and air traffic control services would continue during the brief shutdown period, though many other services would cease and some workers wouldn’t be paid on time. Johnson opposes a shutdown, however, arguing it would do little good and Republicans wouldn’t gain anything politically or substantively.

“Anybody that understands appropriations would have to agree that we’ve got to have a short-term CR,” House Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Steve Womack said. Womack, R-Ark., and others said there’s little appetite within the conference for a shutdown.

Part of the reason another stopgap bill is necessary is Johnson was battling Democrats over the total topline for fiscal 2024 nondefense spending until this past weekend.

It was always an uphill climb given that party’s control of the Senate and White House, though Johnson was able to manage tweaks to an earlier deal that President Joe Biden cut with former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. Instead of simply designating billions of dollars as emergency spending, Johnson wrangled rescissions of unspent pandemic-era funding, for instance.

“The vast majority of the conference understands this is a good deal under the given circumstances that we have,” Johnson said Wednesday on the Hugh Hewitt radio show. “And it moves the ball forward. That’s what we’re about. We have to have incremental gains.” 

That hasn’t stopped Johnson from taking heat from his right flank. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, has called the agreement “a complete failure.” He said in a Tuesday statement it is “a slap in the face” to members who believed they were holding spending to lower capped levels, rather than a side deal with various upward adjustments.

Roy has hinted Johnson might even be at risk of another “motion to vacate” the speaker’s chair akin to the one that toppled McCarthy. Johnson said Wednesday that he’s not concerned about losing his job, calling Roy “one of my closest friends.” 

But tensions flared Wednesday when Roy and 11 other Republicans joined Democrats to defeat a rule needed for floor debate on unrelated legislation.

Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, conducts a news conference with senators and members of the House Freedom Caucus on the debt limit and spending on March 22, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The defeat came after Johnson engaged in a heated discussion with Roy and others on the floor. Members of the GOP’s right flank said they voted against the rule to protest the topline spending deal and a lack of action to secure the southern border.

Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., one of the eight Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy, said he didn’t think Johnson’s job was at risk.

Johnson is turning to a powerful potential ally to try to round up GOP support for the appropriations agreement — former President Donald Trump. Johnson said he was planning to call Trump on Wednesday to walk him through the deal.

“We’ve had some very thoughtful discussions about all the spending negotiations, and the big, heavy decisions I’ve had to make since I became speaker, which is about 75 days ago. And President Trump has been very, very supportive,” Johnson said.

Trump doesn’t enjoy universal support among GOP conservatives; for instance Roy backs Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the presidential primary. But backing from the putative Republican front-runner could help shore up Johnson’s position.

Border talks

So would some kind of movement on border policy restrictions, which many Republicans are insisting on not only in exchange for more aid to Ukraine, but also as a condition of funding the government beyond the upcoming deadlines.

“If we’re not working to extract the security of our nation and willing to shut the government down for a period of time in order to secure our nation in part, then I don’t think we’re having the right fight,” Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., said.

Bipartisan Senate border talks, which Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., was briefing his conference on Wednesday, are moving slowly.

Johnson has been pushing Biden to act on his own to stem the flow of migrants over the southern border. He’s argued Biden could with a stroke of a pen reinstate the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy, for example, which required migrants arriving from Mexico who meet initial screening requirements for asylum to remain there while their cases are adjudicated.

Johnson spoke with Biden again on Wednesday and “strongly encouraged” him to use his executive authorities, Johnson’s deputy chief of staff, Raj Shah, said.

Subcommittee allocations

Meanwhile, appropriators can’t even start writing their final bills yet, since they don’t have their specific allocations for the dozen bills.

Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., and House Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, have been negotiating those joint allocations and are aiming to distribute them this week.

“I hope we’ll have those later today, but I just don’t know,” Senate Appropriations ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, said midday Wednesday after speaking with Murray.

House GOP appropriators met separately Wednesday to discuss wrapping up the fiscal 2024 cycle. Rep. Robert B. Aderholt of Alabama, the top Republican on the Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee, said final allocations hadn’t been distributed yet but he hopes to have numbers by the end of this week.

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