Jan 11, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Mike Johnson faces major test as rebels push to blow up spending deal

House Speaker Mike Johnson. Photo: Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) is at a career-defining crossroads: Hardline Republicans — a day after sabotaging their own party's bills in a show of force — are pressuring him to renege on a spending deal he struck with Senate Democrats.

Why it matters: Members of Johnson's own conference are pleading with him to stand firmly behind the deal, warning that a failure to do so could create the same trust issues that led to former Speaker Kevin McCarthy's (R-Calif.) downfall.

  • The risks of reneging include not only a government shutdown on Jan. 19, but the destruction of Johnson's credibility with Democrats — whose votes he will inevitably need for a functioning House.
  • For an inexperienced speaker who's only been in the job for 78 days, the stakes could hardly be higher.

Driving the news: A group of right-wing House Republicans responsible for Wednesday's rebellion emerged from Johnson's office Thursday morning seemingly under the impression that he had agreed to revisit the spending deal.

  • At issue is the overall level of federal spending: The deal Johnson struck would keep the government funded at 2023 numbers, in line with the budget caps set out in McCarthy's bipartisan debt ceiling deal.
  • House Freedom Caucus (HFC) Chair Bob Good (R-Va.) said conservatives are pushing for a new proposal that cuts spending, secures the border and ends "the era" of supplemental funding packages.

Coming out of the meeting, Johnson told reporters he's been having "thoughtful conversations" but has made "no commitments" — and that "if you hear otherwise, it's just simply not true."

  • Still, his right-wing detractors appear to be placated momentarily: They allowed the same vote they had blocked to pass Thursday afternoon.

What they're saying: "If you touch this, one penny of it, all these quote-unquote 'thoughtful conversations' are going to lead right to a government shutdown, and he himself knows it," Rep. Max Miller (R-Ohio) told Axios.

  • "The speaker either gave his word and made an agreement or he didn't," said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), the chair of the House Financial Services Committee. "And if he gave his word, he's got to fulfill his word."
  • "In life, you can't break your word. You just can't do that … because then you can't cut any deal. You can't negotiate anymore," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee.
  • "The deal that we agreed to ... is the deal we should abide by," said Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.). "My colleagues that continue to throw temper tantrums need to accept reality and move on."

Yes, but: Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), one of the hardliners who tanked Wednesday's vote, said he trusts Johnson "a whole lot more" than McCarthy.

  • "What he is doing is listening, and we trust what he says, which is a different thing from Kevin McCarthy," Norman said.

Between the lines: Some of Johnson's most vocal critics on the right have begun a soft but steady drumbeat of hints about introducing a motion to vacate, which would force a vote on removing Johnson as speaker.

  • Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said Tuesday he's "leaving it on the table." Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) told reporters on Thursday, "If those [bipartisan] deals are going to be made, then absolutely that's on the table."
  • Most lawmakers don't think Johnson is at immediate risk of removal, but they're nevertheless already strategizing about how he might survive such a vote.

Behind the scenes: One Republican lawmaker told Axios that it appears as if the Freedom Caucus is "trying to trip up the speaker to make him a failure."

  • "Johnson is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. The people who fought hardest for him to get in — the HFC — will likely be his undoing," another GOP lawmaker said.

The other side: Democrats concur with establishment Republicans that Johnson's trust and credibility are on the line — and they're warning that, if he fails the test, he could suffer the same fate as McCarthy.

  • Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), the chair of the 97-member New Democrat Coalition, told Axios that "every time he demonstrates this bending to the wind and whoever's the last person he spoke to, he's undermining his credibility for a negotiation."
  • "That's kind of what happened to Kevin McCarthy," Kuster added. "We were prepared to negotiate with him. … He chose not to negotiate. He overplayed his hand. Speaker Johnson's about to do the exact same thing."
  • "I hope they would have learned from the experiences of the former speaker, that cow-towing to the extremists does him no good," said another Democrat. "If he reneges on this deal, they'll find some other reason to be mad at him."

What we're watching: One compromise being floated, said Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.), is spreading spending cuts and border policy concessions across the topline spending deal, appropriations bills and a stopgap spending bill without drastically altering overall spending levels.

  • "I think [Johnson's] approach is the right one: listen, figure out if there are multiple vehicles to attain the same goal while obviously remaining true to his word in those negotiations" with the Senate, Molinaro said.
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