December 11, 2023

WASHINGTON — House Republicans closed out the week by canceling votes on two party-line funding bills in the span of 48 hours, a setback for new Speaker Mike Johnson and a sign of persisting dysfunction in the chamber ahead of a key funding deadline.

They pulled a transportation-housing bill late Tuesday as some coastal Republicans opposed cuts to Amtrak. And they yanked a financial services and general government measure on Thursday morning that included divisive anti-abortion language.

It’s a step backward for Johnson, R-La., who had hoped to show progress on appropriations bills championed by his party’s conservative wing in order to secure their votes to pass a short-term bill that would keep the government open beyond the Nov. 17 deadline.

And it shows how ungovernable the House continues to be after right-wing Republicans ousted Speaker Kevin McCarthy over complaints about his handling of government funding.

“I don’t think the Lord Jesus himself could manage this group,” said Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas. He added that he would pray for the new speaker as the House adjourned for a long weekend.

“We’re still dealing with the same divisions we always have had,” said another House Republican. “We’re ungovernable.”

On Capitol Hill, questions abound about how the new speaker will handle his first big test in a divided government, where he must balance the demands of ultraconservatives with a Democratic-led Senate and president.

“I think there’s a honeymoon period here. I’m not sure how long it lasts, maybe 30 days,” said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky. “But with what’s going on on the floor today, I think that indicates the honeymoon might be shorter than we thought.”

This week, Johnson held multiple meetings with groups of rank-and-file Republicans about a path forward on a short-term funding bill, known as a continuing resolution or CR. He privately indicated his interest in a staggered bill in a meeting with allied Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rick Scott, R-Fla., two sources said. The proposal would fund the government temporarily and impose two-tiered expiration dates: one in January and another in February.

In meetings with Johnson, some members thought he’d go with a “clean” CR without controversial add-ons to fund the government into January, while others believed the speaker would back a similar two-step CR proposed by members of the far-right Freedom Caucus.

“He wants a simple plan that will pass the Senate,” said moderate Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., who met with Johnson on Wednesday along with roughly 20 other lawmakers. “We should do the hard fights on appropriations and the border, and all that stuff. We shouldn’t have the hard fight on the CR — let’s keep the government open and make it bipartisan.”

Republicans said Johnson will need to make a call on a CR strategy by Friday to abide by the 72-hour rule, which gives lawmakers sufficient time to read the legislation before voting on it early next week. Members departed Washington on Thursday afternoon and will return on Monday.

“We’ve got to get the Senate something, and you’ll see us get the Senate something,” said conservative Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., who met with Johnson and is pushing for the two-step process that’s been termed a “laddered CR.”

The GOP also hopes to hammer out some of its differences on the stalled spending bills and to try to move them through the chamber.

Like the financial services measure, several of the remaining House appropriations bills have anti-abortion provisions, which could make it similarly difficult to win the votes of politically endangered Republicans. The issue has sparked fresh anxiety within the GOP after another poor election night earlier this week in which voters in a diverse array of states punished the party for its hard-line opposition to legal abortion.

Before they pulled the financial services bill on Thursday, 165 Republicans voted for an amendment by Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y., to cut White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre’s salary to $1. The measure failed as 54 GOP lawmakers joined Democrats to vote it down, but it revealed how an appropriations process that must be bipartisan to succeed has become a venue for partisan sniping.

Conservatives also were furious over the failure of another amendment — authored by a key Trump ally, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla. — that would have barred funding to acquire property for the new planned FBI headquarters. Seventy Republicans joined all but one Democrat in voting no, a roll call that came shortly after the Biden administration announced the new multi-billion-dollar complex would be built in Greenbelt, Maryland.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., poured cold water on a multi-step approach, telling reporters on Thursday a “clean” stopgap bill at agreed-to budget levels is “the only way forward.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has called for passing a stopgap bill “as quickly as possible” and emphasized on Tuesday that it must be “bipartisan.” But he hasn’t publicly weighed in on how long he believes the funding should last.

The Senate has also struggled to move appropriations bills after a strong start and a bipartisan path. It has passed just three out of 12 funding bills, fewer than the House’s seven. The upper chamber’s appropriations process has fallen prey to demands by conservative senators who have used their powers under Senate rules to dramatically slow things down.

“Well, I don’t want a shutdown,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. “And I’m very optimistic that we will avoid one.”

Asked why he’s so optimistic when there’s no plan, Kennedy said: “I realize that. But it’s happened before that we go up to the deadline.”

He predicted both chambers would pass a short-term bill in time.