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Speaker Johnson on GOP plan to avert government shutdown: ‘Trust us’

Congress appeared deadlocked Tuesday on a path to avert a federal shutdown in less than two weeks, as House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) floated a plan to finance the government that drew criticism from senators of both parties.

Johnson told Americans to “trust us,” as he pitched a staggered Republican approach to fund the government, one that has little chance of success in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) hours later admonished the speaker and Republicans for fiscal brinkmanship.

Federal appropriations will lapse at 12:01 a.m. on Nov. 18 if there is no action, affecting a wide array of federal services and the government’s more than 3 million civilian and military employees. The imminent funding deadline joins a to-do list on Capitol Hill that includes emergency aid for Israel and Ukraine, which also has no obvious path to passage amid fierce disputes among lawmakers.

Speaking to reporters at a news conference with families of Israelis taken hostage by Hamas, Johnson referred to a closed-door meeting of House Republicans on Tuesday morning as a “refreshing, constructive family conversation” as members of his caucus push competing approaches to extending government spending laws.

“I’m not going to tell you when we will bring it to the floor, but it will be in time, how about that? Trust us: We’re working through the process in a way that I think that people will be proud of,” Johnson said. The speaker added that “many options … are on the table, and we’ll be revealing what our plan is in short order.”

The dominant approach that emerged from the meeting was a “laddered” continuing resolution, or CR, lawmakers said, though Johnson did not formally endorse that plan. It would consist of a stopgap bill that would continue funding the government at current spending levels and would have separate expiration dates for various federal programs and agencies, requiring Congress to take up discrete measures as each runs out of money.

“Having never heard of it before, I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), a key member of the Senate GOP leadership, told The Washington Post. “I think it would be confusing and difficult to manage.”

The main alternative, preferred by a bipartisan majority of the Senate, is a single CR at existing spending levels. It isn’t clear when such a short-term spending law would expire. Under the agreement President Biden worked out with House Republicans in late spring to suspend the federal debt ceiling, automatic spending cuts would take effect in April if a short-term funding law were in place in early January. The cuts would become permanent if the government were still operating on short-term funding laws by the end of April.

The impasse reflects the immense political challenge Johnson faces in trying to ensure the government stays open while remaining in office amid the GOP’s fierce internal divisions. Former speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was ousted last month after relying on Democratic votes to fund the government until mid-November, and it’s not clear that Johnson will have much more room to work across the aisle than his predecessor did.

U.S. braces for costly government shutdown

Johnson’s difficulties in funding the government are compounded by the major international crises that the White House is pushing Congress to address.

The House last week approved a $14 billion aid package for Israel, along with two of the 12 bills necessary to fund the government. (The House has passed seven of the 12 so far.) But the House’s Israel funding bill is a nonstarter in the Senate and White House because it includes cuts to the Internal Revenue Service that Democrats staunchly oppose. The House-approved bills to fund different parts of the government, passed mostly by Republicans alone, also have no prospect of passing the Senate.

The Senate, meanwhile, approved on a bipartisan basis three of the 12 bills necessary to fund the government and may vote on several more as soon as this week. Senate lawmakers are also looking at packaging funding to keep the government operational with aid for Israel and Ukraine. But these efforts have been complicated by a Senate GOP push to attach major changes to immigration policy, which Schumer panned Tuesday morning.

However, if the Senate can forge a bipartisan compromise, Johnson could find himself in a predicament similar to McCarthy’s: forced to either enrage the far-right lawmakers who helped topple McCarthy or stand in the way of major bipartisan policy priorities.

“We don’t know what [Johnson’s] plan will be to keep government operational come next Friday, and he’s under a lot of pressure to maintain his position as speaker with the conservatives in the House,” said G. William Hoagland, senior vice president for the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank. “We are in a very difficult situation for keeping the government funded.”

After meeting behind closed doors Tuesday morning, House GOP lawmakers acknowledged that their party has not decided between multiple competing options to avert the looming shutdown.

“Speaker [Johnson] put everything on the table. … When he has a strategy, that’s the strategy I’ll support,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chair of the House Rules Committee, told reporters after Tuesday’s meeting. “I really appreciate him asking everybody to put their ideas on the table.”

Cole said he expressed his strategy preference at Tuesday’s meeting, “and so did a lot of other people. They didn’t all agree with me.”

Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.) said after the House meeting that the GOP conference lacked the votes to pass the piecemeal spending plan on a party-line vote on the House floor. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), the ringleader behind the bid to oust McCarthy last month, said he preferred that staggered approach to a clean CR.

The idea was proposed by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), a fiscal hawk on the House Appropriations Committee and a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus. It has “intrigued” lawmakers, according to GOP aides, with its design to incentivize the Senate to negotiate with the House by sunsetting funding, and to provide political cover to House Republicans who steadfastly oppose temporary government funding bills. Harris said Tuesday he would not support a clean CR.

“It almost in some ways forces the issue, to have 12 individual appropriations conversations, because you don’t have one day where everything’s going bankrupt, you’ve got a day where [the Transportation Department] is going bankrupt or a day [the Defense Department] is going bankrupt,” said Richard Stern, who studies federal budget policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

House leaders said they hoped to vote on a government funding package by the beginning of next week, a few days before the deadline. Regardless, lawmakers from both chambers will have to return to the negotiating table in the new year to avoid the across-the-board budget cuts in the debt limit deal.

House Republicans hope to use that timeline to force Senate Democrats and the White House to make a deal on spending.

“That’s where your leverage is, and I think trying to use a government shutdown for leverage never works,” Cole said.

The White House cautioned against a shutdown, too.

“House Republicans have work to do,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday. “They have to stick to their promise and honor their word to avoid a shutdown, period. It is their job to avoid that, and we cannot be dealing with political games or brinkmanship.”

Johnson, a former House backbencher who primarily focused on social issues up to now, has shown some signs of moderation since becoming speaker — softening his opposition to providing funding for Ukraine, for example — but he has also surprised centrists by tying Israel aid to the IRS cuts.

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“Washington is still really trying to figure him out: What are his priorities, how does he work, what types of relationships does he want to form?” one outside adviser to House and Senate Republicans said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be more candid about the new GOP leader. “The guy is such a black box.”

A standoff that leads the government to close could become painful quickly.

In September, with the government on the brink of a shutdown — which Congress narrowly averted — the IRS said roughly two-thirds of its workforce would be sent home, while the Department of Housing and Urban Development told workers it would eventually be forced to furlough 82 percent of its staff.

A protracted shutdown could lead other urgent federal functions to lapse, including inspections at airports, disaster relief and immigration enforcement.

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