The US budget deal is a win for Mike Johnson. But how long? | Politics News
With just over a day to spare, the United States averted another government shutdown Thursday night, as President Joe Biden signed a last-minute bill to fund federal agencies through the new year
The bill was hailed as a bipartisan success — and a major victory for newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson, who was elected to office just three weeks ago.
But analysts say this short-term victory could spell long-term trouble for Johnson, as he leads a fractured Republican caucus in the House of Representatives.
“Some believe that Johnson’s success in passing the continuing resolution indicates that the far right in the GOP will go with the new speaker,” said Richard F Bensel, a professor of government at the University Cornell.
“I read the event in a different way, because Johnson has greatly offended the far-right members, and they will now make life very difficult for him and the rest of the Republican Party.”
Government spending is occasionally a divisive issue in the US Congress, with many Republicans pushing for larger budget cuts and Democrats often trying to protect or expand social programs.
But when both parties fail to pass budget legislation, there is a risk that the government will shut down all non-essential activities. That leaves government services in limbo and workers and contractors unpaid, which could harm the country’s overall economic growth.
Republicans and Democrats had set November 17 as their next deadline to pass new funding legislation. Facing an imminent shutdown, Johnson offered an unusual proposal: a two-step stopgap bill — or “continuing relief” — that would allow government services to continue temporarily at current spending levels.
But the catch was that Congress would have to revisit the budget question twice in the new year. Veterans services, housing, agriculture and energy had to be voted on by January 19th, and the rest of the budget had to be decided by February 2nd.
Nevertheless, Johnson’s bill was a successful compromise. It passed the House on Tuesday by a vote of 336 to 95, thanks to nearly unanimous support from Democrats.
It also sailed through the Democratic-controlled Senate, allowing Biden to sign it into law late Thursday.
Johnson described the passage of the bill as a “gift to the American people”, forcing any economic uncertainty and legislative shutdown on the country.
“It’s going to change the way we’ve done this,” Johnson said of his two-step solution. “We’ve broken the fever.”
Backed by the Freedom Caucus
But the bill failed to get major concessions from the Democrats, including the big budget cuts that the far right had demanded. As a result, a total of 93 House Republicans voted against the continuing resolution, breaking ranks with Johnson.
“If we were keeping score – and, of course, everyone in Washington does – this is a clear win for the Democrats. Given the divided government, Democrats would prefer such a continuing resolution all the way to February 2025,” said Bensel, a Cornell University professor.
Among the Republican opponents was a group of about 30 self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives known as the Freedom Caucus. One of the leaders of the caucus, Representative Chip Roy, criticized the bill as a “strategic failure” and a “mistake” that Johnson made “right out of the gate”.
“When are we going to do what we said we would do?” Roy asked on the House floor. “When are we going to stand up to stop reckless spending?”
Critics have noted that the Freedom Caucus is often a disturbing presence in Congress, one that considers members of the Democratic Party as “enemies” and “Marxists”. Therefore, cooperation is not an option.
Nicholas F Jacobs, professor of government at Colby College, said that cracking bills as a budget resolution can pay political dividends for members of the Freedom Caucus.
“What makes them different is that they don’t feel the same electoral pressures when the government shuts down that every other member of Congress does, Republican or Democrat,” Jacobs said.
In fact, he said, tough tactics — even risking a government shutdown — can appeal to their far-right base. “They can still get points when they go on Twitter or Fox, saying they are doing everything they can to cut the national debt. “
Speaker from the margin
Although Johnson may have angered the Freedom Caucus, he still maintains his reputation as a far-right Republican himself. Jacobs cautioned that the bipartisan success of Johnson’s funding bill should not be seen as a shift to the center for Republicans or Democrats.
“I don’t think we can expect to see any pragmatic turnaround anytime soon,” Jacobs said. “Democrats are happy because Republicans can’t govern right now.”
Bensel also questioned whether the bipartisan spending bill signals an acceptance of political pragmatism in Congress. Instead, Johnson is seen as part of an ongoing movement just for the Republican Party.
Formerly an unrecognized representative from Louisiana, Johnson is considered a staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump and a key figure behind the effort to reverse the 2020 elections, which he lost Trump.
“On social and cultural issues, Johnson is even more anathema to Democrats than Donald Trump, which makes pragmatic politics difficult,” Bensel said.
Bensel also noted Johnson’s apparent embrace of the Christian right. In his first interview as speaker, Johnson told TV host Sean Hannity that his worldview was shaped by the Bible.
“His evangelical Christian beliefs put him on the fringes of the GOP, a party known for its religious commitments,” Bensel said. “Johnson’s religious beliefs may ultimately prevail if he has to choose between them and more pragmatic politics.”
A study in comparison
Regardless of Johnson’s political and religious leanings, Bensel questions whether any Republican speaker can hold the position in the bitterly divided House.
Just a month and a half ago, on October 3, far-right members of the party led a successful effort to oust Johnson’s predecessor, former President Kevin McCarthy, after he also agreed to compromise bilateral budget. McCarthy had only been speaker for nine months.
“No Republican can possibly survive long as speaker of the current House,” Bensel said.
But Bensel and other analysts acknowledged that there were key differences between McCarthy and Johnson that could shape their future as party leaders.
Robert Y Shapiro, a professor of government at Columbia University, told Al Jazeera that McCarthy was not seen as a strong enough supporter of the far right.
“He wasn’t very supportive of all Trump-related issues and strongly denounced the election,” Shapiro explained. “He wasn’t a visible supporter of the Freedom Caucus and rhetoric and right-wing idiocy, and he was seen as more willing to work with the Democrats.”
He said Johnson’s dark horse status as a speaker candidate was an advantage.
“At the same time, Johnson was not famous, so without McCarthy’s baggage, and he has been a staunch supporter of Trump — and an election denier,” Shapiro said.
When McCarthy was removed as speaker in October, it prompted a long search for a replacement, one who addressed the turmoil in the Republican Party.
It took three weeks of party fighting and several votes for Johnson to come out on top. Shapiro said Republicans are likely looking to project an image of stability moving forward — and that will help protect Johnson’s position as speaker, at least in the short term.
“They won’t block it either because the Republicans in the House understand how bad it would be to vote it up and another battle for Speaker,” he said.
Additionally, with the 2024 presidential election looming, Shapiro believes the rift within the Republican Party has an expiration date.
“Ultimately, the 2024 election, these divisions will disappear in terms of almost every Republican member of Congress and the Senate supporting Trump or whoever is the GOP nominee.”