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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

January 12: Like Mr. Magoo, Mike Johnson May Blunder Into Keeping the Government Open

Watching the now-customary chaos among House Republicans, I predicted at New York that this time all the dysfunction may prevent rather than trigger a government shutdown:

Since Republicans won narrow control of the U.S. House a year ago, the most important dynamic affecting the 118th Congress has been utter disarray within the GOP ranks. The only real leverage the House GOP has over big national policy issues is its ability by inaction to shut down the federal government, since affirmative legislation in both congressional chambers is required to enact the annual spending measures necessary to keep Washington humming. Because Republicans only have a tiny majority (down temporarily to just one seat thanks to recent resignations), it only takes a few rebels to keep their conference from any particular course of action. Within the hard-core conservative House Freedom Caucus there are enough members willing to risk a government shutdown to make very basic decisions on federal spending levels impossible. They’re also happy to wreak vengeance on any Speaker who cooperates with the hated Democratic enemy to avoid disaster, as Kevin McCarthy did last fall.

So Congress lurches from stopgap spending bill to stopgap spending bill, and now Speaker Mike Johnson is in very much the same position that led to McCarthy’s defenestration by a maneuver to take away his gavel. He’s agreed with Senate Democrats on general spending levels for defense and nondefense programs (known in beltway jargon as a “top-line spending deal”) and wants now to translate the agreement into individual appropriations bills before the last stopgap spending measures expire on January 19 (for part of the federal government) and February 2 (for the rest of it, including the Pentagon). Predictably, Freedom Caucus hardliners don’t think the deal cuts spending nearly enough, and they also want to pass some right-wing “policy riders” on issues like abortion and the alleged persecution of conservatives by federal law enforcement officials. But Johnson’s their guy, unlike McCarthy, and they really don’t want to go through another “motion to vacate the chair” and then another impossible search for a Speaker who can somehow meet their demands without the power to force Democrats to go along with them.

Ironically, the continuing disarray in the House GOP conference may produce enough paralysis to keep the federal government operating. At the moment Johnson wants another stopgap spending measure (known as a “continuing resolution” or CR) to buy enough time to implement the top-line spending agreement. After issuing some threats to blow everything up, the Freedom Caucus rebels now seem inclined to favor a CR so they can buy time to unravel that agreement and unite Republicans around something more to their liking. Conveniently, Senate Democrats are moving a CR that would kick the can down the road until March. It’s looking more and more like a House GOP (and more generally, a Congress) that can’t agree on anything else might be able to agree to disagree at least a bit longer without dire consequences for the federal government. It’s even possible that the closer they get to November elections, the more Republicans will become inclined to just let voters decide how to resolve their differences with each other and with Democrats.

If Johnson is indeed rescued from a fatal revolt by the irresolution of the very rebels who took down McCarthy, there will be some observers who credit the novice congressional leader with Machiavellian talents not possessed by his wily predecessor. It’s more likely Johnson is Mr. Magoo, blundering through potential disasters by sheer luck. It remains to be seen if his luck runs out before this exhausting session of Congress ends.


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