Newly minted Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) can let out a small sigh of relief as he dives into a whirlwind of pressing policy matters: Hard-line conservatives are signaling they could give him some breathing room on fiscal issues — at least for now.
“I’m trying to give the Speaker a little time to get his footing,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said when asked about the spending demands.
Disputes about spending have roiled the House GOP conference all year and contributed to the ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
Freedom Caucus members and their allies utilized hardball tactics at nearly every turn, pressuring the California Republican to comply with demands for lower spending levels and conservative policy riders.
But some are now recognizing that their strategy was unsuccessful.
McCarthy in May cut a deal with President Biden to raise the debt ceiling, and last month, the then-Speaker passed a “clean” stopgap spending bill — two outcomes hard-liners vehemently opposed.
At least one Freedom Caucus member is angling for a reset.
“It didn’t work,” Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) said of holding McCarthy’s feet to the fire. He added: “I think we’re all sort of reformulating.”
“What we attempted to do in substitute for getting the right Speaker in January was to come up with a structure, both in personnel policy and procedure, and the policy piece didn’t work,” he said. “The conference couldn’t stay with it, couldn’t get it done. Speaker wouldn’t put his shoulder to the wheel to see to it that it got done. We drifted; it created divisions in leadership.”
The strategy was “well-intended and reasonably designed,” Bishop said, “but it didn’t ultimately function.”
As Republicans resume normal operations after three weeks of paralysis while they squabbled over who should replace McCarthy, they recognize that some original plans are no longer feasible.
Johnson has floated passing a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government until Jan. 15 or April 15, a prospect that some Freedom Caucus members — who have previously been skeptical of stopgap measures — say they would be okay with.
“He deserves some time to do it,” Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) said. “We lost three weeks.”
“I wasn’t for CRs period, but water is under the bridge,” Bishop said. “We are where we are; there needs to be a stopgap measure. I will support one.”
The right flank is undecided on laying down red lines and conditions for the stopgap legislation — which the conservative group did last time, causing headaches for McCarthy.
Roy said that his support for a stopgap “depends on how it’s structured, framed, and whether it’s tactical versus a punt,” while Bishop said he does not plan to make any ultimatums.
“I’m prepared to participate in developing the terms and conditions of that, but I’m not drawing lines in the sand, ‘cause I don’t think that’s particularly helpful,” Bishop added.
But some spending process purists, including Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), are not ready to begin discussions over a continuing resolution at all — instead preferring to focus on moving as many appropriations bills as possible ahead of the Nov. 17 deadline.
Even so, Gaetz — who led the process to oust McCarthy — signaled that the hard-liners would be soft on Johnson, at least in the beginning, as he takes on the “mess” McCarthy left behind.
“We know McCarthy left him a real mess. McCarthy had made multiple inconsistent comments about the budgetary top lines, so we’re gonna have to clean out the barn a bit,” Gaetz said.
Johnson, for his part, is already working to scrub the place clean and set the House on a new trajectory.
Last week, the then-Speaker candidate sent a letter to colleagues laying out a rigorous short-term and long-term schedule to guide the chamber through the appropriations process until the end of the current Congress, which closes at the end of December 2024.
Johnson set those plans in motion on the first day of his Speakership, with the House beginning consideration of one of the 12 regular spending bills — funding energy and water development and related agencies — shortly after his swearing-in. The next day, the chamber passed it.
The chamber, however, is still well behind schedule — as is the Senate — a sure sign that a stopgap bill will be necessary before Nov. 17. The House has passed five of 12 fiscal 2024 appropriations bills, while the Senate has approved none.
One issue still up in the air for the hard-liners is whether the Republicans will push for more spending cuts in remaining appropriations bills. Before McCarthy’s ouster, the GOP conference had struck an agreement to shave off more money from the combined top line by rewriting the remaining bills. Lawmakers reached a top-line figure of $1.526 trillion — higher than the $1.471 trillion that the Freedom Caucus was seeking, but down from a $1.586 trillion figure that the bills had been before.
Those numbers will still need to be negotiated with the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Freedom Caucus members are unsure if they will be okay with that agreement going forward, but they acknowledge that they will not get to the $1.471 trillion number they had been pushing for the bulk of the year.
At least one member, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), signaled his patience may be running short with the spending bills.
Speaking about his votes in favor of appropriations bills, Biggs said he voted for many “stinkers under McCarthy, because I wanted him to try to get the 12.”
“And I just voted on another stinker, trying to help Speaker Johnson. So, I don’t know how many more stinkers I can vote for,” Biggs said.
As Congress readies for the next portion of this year’s spending fight, the hard-liners are openly recognizing a key difference between now and then that is shifting their mindset: the man sitting across from them at the negotiating table.
Many in the right flank were deeply suspicious of McCarthy when it came to fiscal matters, not trusting his pledge to avoid an omnibus spending package at the end of the year. But they have much more confidence in Johnson, who previously led the Republican Study Committee — the largest conservative caucus in the House.
Roy said that the House Freedom Caucus’s relationship with Johnson is “good,” and he is “simpatico” with them on policy issues.
Trust, hard-liners say, is the key.
“There’s a trust factor that is a positive with Speaker Johnson that obviously didn’t exist before,” said Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), a Freedom Caucus member. “And so we do trust him, we think he’s gonna be an honest leader, which is the No. 1 quality you’re looking for in a leader, that you can trust them and they’re honest in what they tell you.”
Norman said he would consider the short-term continuing resolution outlined by Johnson but would not have entertained the same proposal under McCarthy — a clear sign of the personal distrust that made McCarthy’s nine-month tenure as difficult as it was.
“Under McCarthy I wouldn’t go with it. Under Johnson, he’s got political capital,” Norman said. “In one word: trust. You know he’s working toward it, and yeah, we’ll give him latitude.”