Mike Johnson now knows what Kevin McCarthy was dealing with.
At the new speaker’s behest, House Republicans today relied on Democratic votes to avert a government shutdown by passing legislation that contains neither budget cuts nor conservative policy priorities. The bill was a near replica of the funding measure that McCarthy pushed through the House earlier this fall—a supposed surrender to Democrats that prompted hard-liners in his party to toss him from the speakership.
Johnson is unlikely to suffer the same fate, at least not yet. But today’s vote laid bare a reality that’s become ever more apparent over the past year: Republicans may hold more seats than Democrats, but they don’t control the House.
Under McCarthy and now Johnson, Republicans have been unable to pass just about any important legislation without significant help from Democrats. The three most consequential votes this year have been the spring budget deal that prevented a catastrophic U.S. debt default, September’s stopgap spending bill that averted a shutdown, and today’s proposal that keeps the government funded through early 2024. More Democrats than Republicans have voted for all three measures.
GOP leaders have struggled to pass their own proposals on spending bills, leaving the party empty-handed in negotiations with the Democratic-led Senate and the Biden administration. Like McCarthy before him, Johnson pledged that Republicans would advance individual appropriations bills to counter the Senate’s plans to combine them into legislative packages that are too big for lawmakers to adequately review. But in the past week, he’s been forced to scrap votes on two of these proposals because of Republican opposition.
McCarthy surrendered to Democrats in late September after his members refused to pass a temporary spending bill containing deep cuts and provisions to lock down the southern border. When it was his turn, Johnson didn’t even bother to try a conservative approach. On Saturday, he unveiled a bill that maintains current spending levels—enacted by Democratic majorities in 2022—for another two months. He did not include additional funding for either Israel or Ukraine, nor did he include any policy provisions that might turn off Democrats. Johnson’s only wrinkle was to create two different deadlines for the next funding extension; funding for some departments will run out on January 19, while money for the rest of the government, including the Defense Department, will continue for another two weeks after that.
The Louisiana Republican said that the dual deadlines would spare Congress from having to consider a trillion-dollar omnibus spending package right before Christmas, as it has done repeatedly over the past several years. “That is no way to run a railroad,” Johnson said this morning on CNBC. “This innovation prevents that from happening, and I think we’ll have bipartisan agreement that that is a better way to do it.”
Johnson’s decision to avoid a partisan shutdown fight seemed to catch Democrats off guard. The White House initially slammed his proposal, but once party leaders on Capitol Hill realized that the spending bill contained no poison pills, they warmed to it. Democratic support became necessary once it was clear that Republicans would not be able to pass the measure on their own. Conservatives couldn’t even agree to allow a floor vote on the proposal, forcing Johnson to bring it up using a procedure that ultimately required the bill to receive a two-thirds majority to pass.
Republican hard-liners have been no more willing to compromise under Johnson than they were under McCarthy. The conservative House Freedom Caucus, which initially suggested the two-deadline approach, ultimately opposed the bill anyway. “It contains no spending reductions, no border security, and not a single meaningful win for the American People,” the group said in a statement. “While we remain committed to working with Speaker Johnson, we need bold change.”
Buried in that final expression of support for Johnson was the first hint of a warning. Conservatives have given the untested speaker some leeway in his opening weeks. Even McCarthy received something of a grace period; when the speaker negotiated a debt-ceiling deal with President Joe Biden, conservatives voted against the bill but didn’t try to overthrow him. Hard-liners haven’t threatened to remove Johnson, but that could change if he keeps relying on Democratic votes. When McCarthy caved to Democrats on spending for the second time, he lost his job a few days later.
The former speaker and his allies warned his GOP critics that his replacement would find themselves in the same position: managing a majority that isn’t large enough to exert its will. “I’m one of the archconservatives,” Johnson told reporters before the vote, trying to defend himself. “I want to cut spending right now, and I would have liked to put policy riders on this. But when you have a three-vote majority, as we do right now, we don’t have the votes to be able to advance that.”
Johnson has now used up one of his free passes. The question is how many more he’ll get. In the coming weeks, the speaker will have to navigate a series of fiscal fights over funding for Israel, Ukraine, and the southern border. The bill that the House passed today buys Congress another two months to hash out its differences over spending, but it doesn’t resolve them. Johnson vowed not to agree to any more “short-term” extensions of federal funding, increasing the risk of a shutdown early next year. The speaker will also have to decide whether to press forward with an impeachment of Biden that could please conservatives but turn off Republicans in swing districts.
In the meantime, frustrated lawmakers from both parties are racing to leave Congress. Since McCarthy’s ouster, nine members, five of them Republicans, have announced their plans to resign or forgo reelection. Many more are likely to do so before the end of the year. After fewer than two terms in the House, GOP Representative Pat Fallon of Texas even considered returning to his old seat in the state legislature, which Republicans have long dominated, before changing his mind today. The frustration extended to other corners of the House GOP. “We got nothing,” another Texas Republican, Representative Chip Roy, lamented to reporters yesterday. He shouldn’t have been surprised. At the moment, Republicans in the House have a majority in name only.