UPDATE (Nov. 11, 2023 5:20 p.m. ET): On Saturday, House Republicans unveiled their plan to avert a government shutdown. The untested two-step continuing resolution will face a tough road in the House, let alone the Senate.
The good news: House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., doesn’t want the government to shut down when the current short-term funding bill expires in one week. The bad news: He has no idea how he’s going to make that happen. And while Johnson may not have the same bull’s-eye on his back as his predecessor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., he also doesn’t seem to be any closer to uniting the extremely fractured GOP caucus.
That theory falls apart, though, when you look at how much Republicans have struggled to write bills that at least 216 of them support.
The most obvious solution is for the House and the Democratic-controlled Senate to finish the appropriations process in a bipartisan manner, honoring the spending deal McCarthy struck with President Joe Biden this year, and reset the clock to next October. And the most obvious roadblock is that Johnson is handcuffed to the exact same strategy as McCarthy: rely only on Republican votes to pass spending bills and figure out later how those bills will actually make it through the Senate and avoid a presidential veto. In theory, this strategy shows solidarity among the House GOP, making it more likely that the final result looks like something at least a majority of the caucus can support.
That theory falls apart, though, when you look at how much Republicans have struggled to write bills that at least 216 of them support. Case in point: A bill to fund the Transportation Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development got pulled from the floor Tuesday for lack of support. Another funding bill, this time for financial services and general government spending, got yanked ahead of a scheduled vote Thursday thanks to anti-abortion language that conservatives demanded and moderates balked at after this week’s drubbing on the issue in places like Ohio.
House Appropriations Committee Chair Tom Cole, R-Okla., who oversees that Transportation-HUD bill, succinctly summed up the GOP’s plight in marshaling votes, telling Politico he “has ‘eight to 10’ people upset about Amtrak cuts and the same amount who want to see Amtrak eliminated altogether. And he needs both to vote for the bill.”
Math like that for multiple bills means avoiding a shutdown — currently scheduled to begin at 12:01 a.m. Nov. 18 — will require another short-term bill to pass. McCarthy got the last one through by offering a clean continuing resolution, keeping spending levels constant and relying on House Democrats to get it over the line. But that move cost him his job as the far right revolted, and many of those same members seem equally disinclined to tolerate Johnson’s following suit.
The problem is that there are no real alternatives that sound like they’ve got the support of the full caucus. Johnson laid out three options to his members in a private caucus meeting Tuesday, according to NBC News’ Scott Wong. Those included a stopgap bill that would come with “certain stipulations,” as Axios put it, which most likely means conservative policy changes that would make the bill a nonstarter for House and Senate Democrats. The other options were passing a “staggered” or “laddered” approach to the continuing resolution, which would fund parts of the government until mid-December and parts until mid-January, or ultimately accepting whatever the Senate sends over.
Outside of the Freedom Caucus, there’s little appetite for that kind of mishigas, especially on the other side of the Capitol.
Of those, the staggered CR has gotten the most support from the far-right Freedom Caucus. It’s also notably not something that’s been done before in quite the way being pitched. While there have been previous shutdowns in which only some parts of the government ran out of money, those were viewed as unfortunate consequences of broader spending negotiations. The plan under discussion makes that sort of disjointed stop-and-start momentum the desired outcome. Instead of one looming crisis to deal with over the next several months, Congress would spend that time in perpetual chaos as one deadline or another crept up.
Outside of the Freedom Caucus, there’s little appetite for that kind of mishigas, especially on the other side of the Capitol. “Having never heard of it before, I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., told The Washington Post, saying it sounded “confusing and difficult to manage.” Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, told Punchbowl News that she had “a lot of reservations.” Committee chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., was much blunter: “That’s the craziest, stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.”
The current scuttlebutt from Punchbowl is that Johnson’s team plans to put some kind of short-term bill on the floor Tuesday. That means it’ll need to be made public by Saturday at the latest to comply with Johnson’s pledge to honor the “72-hour rule” — allowing members three days to read a bill. It also would leave only three further days to come up with a backup plan should option A go down in flames.
But according to NBC News, Johnson has sent mixed signals about exactly what that bill will look like. GOP moderates think he’ll put forward something that will sail through the Democratic-controlled Senate, while conservatives think he favors the staggered approach. Without any bill to read, it’s hard to say what the odds of either version’s passing are. But given the discord that Johnson has yet to tamp down, I’d say the totally real plan that he’s been busy coming up with looks pretty flammable to me.