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Mike Johnson has a plan to avert the shutdown – will it work?

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-LA., returns to his office in the US Capitol on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023.

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-LA., returns to his office in the US Capitol on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023.

Is it better to kick two cans down the road rather than one? House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) is about to find out in the first big test of his speakership. With another government shutdown deadline looming on Friday, the House plans to vote today on Johnson’s plan to keep the US government from plunging over the fiscal cliff – again.

The background: We’ve been here before, recently. Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) avoided a shutdown in September only by relying on Democratic support for a bill that kept government spending flat. But he paid for it with his job: Far-right members led by Matt Gaetz (R-FL) had demanded deep spending cuts, and when they didn’t get their way, they ousted the speaker for the first time in US history.

The new approach: Johnson, who comes from the right wing of the GOP himself, isn’t trying McCarthy’s approach. Instead of asking members to vote on a single bill to keep the government running, Johnson has proposed what is known as a “laddered” approach that will fund government spending on military construction, Veterans Affairs, transportation, housing, and the Energy Department — where there is broad consensus on funding levels — through Jan. 19, 2024, while delaying a decision on the rest of the government’s funding until Feb. 2, 2024.

Johnson got the House Rules Committee to approve his unorthodox approach on Monday, but that was the easy bit. He’s now got to shepherd through a proposal that can pass the Democratic-controlled Senate (which will reject spending cuts) without angering the same far-right caucus that unseated his predecessor (which wants deep spending cuts).

“Johnson has more runway than McCarthy, but more runway is not a license to do anything you want,” said Eurasia Group’s US Director Clayton Allen. “Johnson is trying to find a way forward that does not blow up his position with the GOP conference.”

That path may require suspending the normal rules of the House to move the bill through. If he can cobble together a two-thirds majority of Republicans who are ok with no spending cuts right now and Democrats who want to keep the government funded even if they don’t love the two-step structure, far-right GOP members can still vote “no” but can’t offer amendments or otherwise delay the passage of the bill, thereby avoiding a shutdown.

And by separating the few easy spending items from the rest for early next year, Johnson is offering those same members another chance to get their desired cuts a little later, perhaps with some additional leverage to negotiate with the Senate. Will it be enough of a concession to save his bacon? That’s what we’re about to find out.


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