Mike Johnson’s manoeuvring may save Christmas but foreshadows fiscal face-off in New Year

Speaker Mike Johnson

28th November 2023 – (Washington) The U.S. Congress will not face a government spending deadline this December for the first time in nearly a decade. This unexpected relief is largely due to an astute strategic move by Speaker Mike Johnson, who cleverly averted a government shutdown. Johnson’s gambit was designed to protect his party from the dreaded legislative ‘Christmas tree’ – a bill that has had many unrelated amendments added to it, often derided by conservatives.

However, Johnson’s manoeuvre may be a short-lived triumph. The Speaker has already stated that he won’t put another ‘clean’ funding bill on the floor, thereby increasing the likelihood of a shutdown after the next spending deadlines on 19th January and 2nd February. The divisions within the House GOP are so deep that some lawmakers worry they’ll find themselves in the same last-minute predicament that they faced this autumn.

That’s not the only issue that Congress must grapple with in the upcoming months. Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are set to clash over several significant priorities, including aid to Israel and Ukraine, reauthorisation of foreign surveillance powers, border security, and stalled military promotions.

Despite having sidestepped spending deadlines twice already this year, Congress’s challenges are far from over. Many lawmakers are sceptical about the prospects of a different outcome in January. As Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) bluntly put it, if Congress couldn’t get the job done by September, November, or December, why would January be any different?

The House GOP’s contentious stance on reduced spending levels could exacerbate the situation, particularly when reconciling these with the Senate’s spending plans. This tension, combined with the House’s far lower spending levels, creates a challenging environment for reconciling the 12 different bills’ divergent spending levels. This process will require identical legislation to be steered through both chambers, a tall order in the current political climate.

Johnson’s insistence on not endorsing another clean stopgap spending bill – a continuing resolution that doesn’t include any blanket cuts to government funding – further complicates matters. He has effectively drawn a line in the sand, and it remains to be seen how he manages his conference.

The absence of a cross-Capitol agreement on top lines – the overall amount of spending – means that the House and Senate can’t even negotiate less controversial areas, such as funds for veterans and military construction.

In the midst of these financial frictions, Johnson is battling another significant problem: his own members are obstructing him from bringing bills to the floor. Nearly 20 GOP members sank their own party’s spending bill in retaliation for Johnson’s decision to rely on Democrats to pass a short-term spending stopgap and prevent a shutdown.

As a result, Johnson finds himself in a precarious situation. He must satisfy conservatives’ demand for steep cuts and policy victories, while also dealing with the likely rejection of such demands by Schumer and the White House. This could potentially undermine the House GOP’s priorities through a critical deadline on 2nd February, and possibly even longer, as internal politics become increasingly complicated with the approach of the election season.