government shutdown

Speaker Johnson Has One Weird Plan for Avoiding a Shutdown

Being Speaker is hard work! Photo: Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A week before the expiration of the stopgap spending bill that cost his predecessor the House Speaker’s gavel, Mike Johnson has a long way to go in avoiding a government shutdown that could extend into the holiday season. The good news for Johnson, and for federal employees, is that this time around, nobody seems to be jonesing for one. Whether it’s because they like Johnson more than Kevin McCarthy or because they have changed tactics, the “No CR” (or continuing resolution, the Beltway term for stopgap spending measures) crowd behind Matt Gaetz, which refused to give McCarthy any non-suicidal path to keeping the government open, isn’t trying to produce a shutdown.

Indeed, the obsession of the right wing of the House Republican conference these days is insisting on the passage of individual appropriations bills (all 12 of them, in theory) instead of accommodating that alleged mother of all big-government spending, the omnibus appropriations bill. Unfortunately, Senate Democrats and non-MAGA Senate Republicans want an omnibus bill. So Johnson is reportedly toying with multiple short-term CRs with different expiration dates to create time for the enactment of appropriations bills and end the immediate threat of a shutdown. This “laddered CR” idea is not very well spelled out so far, and congressional traditionalists dislike it. But it may be Johnson’s only real idea, as Politico Playbook explained:

While he wants to avoid a shutdown, we’re told by senior Republicans that he’s struggling to decide what he wants a continuing resolution to look like. If he passes a “clean” CR without partisan provisions, he lets down the GOP base and conservatives. But if he demands concessions and embraces a showdown, he could undercut his majority-makers.

Johnson, we’re told, is still trying to win support for this “ladder CR” idea. His most recent pitch is to tell skeptical members that he’s not talking about a bunch of deadlines — just two: passing one tranche of appropriations bills into January and the second into February or so.

It’s unclear that the argument will work in his chamber. And Democrats in the Senate flat out hate it. “That’s the craziest, stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of,” Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said.

To the extent that the “laddered CR” approach depends on Congress briskly passing individual appropriations bills in an orderly fashion, it has taken a hit this week. Johnson had to pull two such bills from consideration on the House floor due to dissension from one Republican faction or another. (A perpetual problem is the desire of hard-core conservatives to attach poison-pill amendments on issues like abortion and/or to slash spending deeply.) House Republicans publicly berated themselves and one another, as NBC News reported:

“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.”

Leaving the Lord Jesus out of it, the question is whether the wing-nut back-bencher turned Speaker Johnson can somehow navigate divisions and complications that took down a wily veteran like McCarthy (and before him, another wily veteran, John Boehner). Aside from the puzzle of how to handle regular appropriations, Congress could easily come unglued over how to deal with the Biden administration’s supplemental appropriations menu, which includes aid to Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan along with additional border-security money that raises all sorts of policy disputes between Democrats and Republicans. Earlier, Johnson ignored most of the requests and pushed an Israel aid bill linked to a dead-on-arrival proposal to cut IRS funding through the House. This deeply irresponsible, even frivolous step called into question his willingness and ability to cast aside years of GOP demagoguery and get stuff done.

Perhaps he and other congressional leaders can agree on a very short-term stopgap to give Johnson more time to take off the speakership training wheels and everyone else more time to cut a deal without drama. Otherwise, the shutdown no one really seems to want will arrive very quickly.

More on politics

See All
Speaker Johnson Has One Weird Plan for Avoiding a Shutdown