Republicans Are Tired of Mike Johnson ‘Kicking the Can Down the Road’

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero / The Daily Beast / Getty
Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero / The Daily Beast / Getty

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) has once again found himself in a familiar position: in trouble.

For the third time under his speakership, Congress is barreling toward a government shutdown. And for the third time, House Republicans are taking to their standard punt formation.

Johnson and other top congressional leaders plan to pass another stopgap spending plan to extend government funding on Thursday. And in response to that plan, Republicans had one phrase at the top of their minds on Wednesday.

“We're just kicking the can down the road,” conservative Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) told The Daily Beast.

Republican Study Committee Chairman Kevin Hern (R-OK) used the exact same phrase. “We keep kicking this can down the road,” he said.

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And conservative Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) said he strongly disagreed with Johnson’s spending plan, with a familiar turn of phrase to describe how lawmakers were stalling with a continuing resolution.

“Kicking the can down the road,” Roy told The Daily Beast, “a two-week CR at Nancy Pelosi spending levels, no policy changes—it’s just more of the same.”

Due to House political maneuvering a few months back, government funding expires in two steps. Appropriations for an initial bucket of federal programs—representing about 20 percent of the government—is scheduled to run out on March 1. A week later, on March 8, funding for a second set of federal agencies expires.

The spending agreement unveiled by Johnson, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on Wednesday would bump those dates to March 8 and March 22. That way, theoretically, the House would have more time to pass appropriations bills for the next seven months at spending levels approved by congressional leaders.

But if the House GOP’s record of chaos and dysfunction is any indication, there’s plenty of reason to believe this agreement will crumble, too. And then Johnson will take the heat. He already is for how he rolled out the deal.

One House GOP lawmaker told The Daily Beast that they learned about the spending agreement from Twitter.

The way he’s handled this whole thing is abysmal. I mean, there’s been zero communication with the conference. He can do a much better job,” this Republican lawmaker said. “I still really don’t know everything that’s involved in it. I haven’t heard from his mouth yet. That’s the most concerning.”

Johnson’s communication style with members has been a recurring grievance among Republicans. On Friday, Johnson hosted a call with the House GOP conference, and lawmakers anticipated he would propose a blueprint to avert a shutdown.

Those expectations were quickly dashed.

Rather than offer a firm vision on the call, Johnson was wishy-washy, according to multiple sources. His murky potential paths forward came with built-in wiggle room. Lawmakers left the call questioning why Johnson wasted his breath.

“This is pointless,” the GOP lawmaker texted The Daily Beast during the call.

Johnson’s enigmatic communication style has been a consistent complaint for Republicans.

At a Florida leadership retreat last week, GOP members expected Johnson to provide the team with his plan to keep House Republicans in the majority next year. Instead, Johnson’s presentation for electoral success amounted to him quoting the Bible, according to two sources familiar with his comments.

The religious sermon landed with a thud.

“Instead of preaching to the conference, Johnson needs to deliver a plan on how we are going to grow this majority and get us out of this mess,” one senior GOP aide told The Daily Beast.

“He never laid out a vision,” another GOP source said of Johnson in Florida. “He would make a much better college professor.”

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Government spending has been a particular challenge for Johnson. Since he ascended to the speakership in October, he’s faced an appropriations impasse. Johnson is staring down two government funding strategies that both potentially end in calamity.

His first option is to work with Senate Democrats on a compromise spending deal. That’s really the only way to actually pass legislation in a divided Congress.

But if he negotiates in a bicameral, bipartisan way, Johnson would alienate House conservatives who want spending cuts and right-wing policy riders, like the immigration restrictions that Democrats oppose. That’s a dangerous option, given conservative inclinations to cannibalize their leaders when they don’t get their way.

If Johnson wants to avoid an ouster like his predecessor Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), he has to proceed down that path with caution.

Johnson’s second option is to give in to his right flank’s demands and attach spending cuts and conservative policy riders to funding bills. But that route would be doomed to fail in the Senate, almost certainly steering the government into a shutdown and upsetting the politically vulnerable faction of the House GOP.

Up until this point, Johnson has selected “none of the above.” Instead of facing the political reality, he’s punted on spending decisions, seeming to hope that the facts will just change.

But splitting the difference isn’t exactly earning Johnson many friends. The situation has gotten so toxic that conservatives are now complimenting their former leader, the exiled McCarthy.

Roy told The Daily Beast earlier this week that, while he disagreed sharply with McCarthy’s handling of a debt ceiling deal, he credited the former speaker for working with a “large number” of members “across the spectrum.”

McCarthy’s method, Roy said, “largely worked.”

When it comes to Johnson’s leadership, however, Roy said he’s largely failed to lay out a plan and stick to it. Unless, he said, “you consider capitulation a plan.”

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) makes a statement to members of the news media after meeting with President Joe Biden.
Leah Millis/Reuters

At some point, Johnson will have to make a decision. If Congress doesn’t pass appropriations by April 30, a 1 percent cut to non-defense and non-veteran spending programs will take effect. (The cuts were included as a stipulation in the Biden-McCarthy debt ceiling deal that was struck last year).

Senate Democrats and the White House have said those cuts are unacceptable and are therefore trying to force passage of spending bills before the April 30 deadline.

Johnson told his conference that the text of the appropriation bills will come out this weekend.

“This is the process for appropriations,” Johnson told reporters Wednesday evening. “It always works this way, and everyone will get all the bill text and will have 72 hours to review it. That’s our rule and we’re going to honor that. And that’s why the process-CR is necessary to allow that 72 hours.”

Until then, some Republican lawmakers were reluctant to comment on the forthcoming appropriations bills. But initial conservative skepticism suggests the GOP conference, with its razor-thin majority, isn’t aligned. It’s more likely that Johnson will have to rely on Democratic support to pass the continuing resolution and spending bills—as he has for just about every bill that’s passed under his leadership.

House Freedom Caucus Chair Rep. Bob Good (R-VA) grumbled that the short-term plan was, fittingly, “not too good.”

Good was one of the eight Republican rebels who voted to boot McCarthy from the speakership in October. So far, though, he has held off on saying Johnson’s transgressions against conservatives warrant removal.

At another point Wednesday, reporters pressed Good on whether Johnson could face an ouster in response to the spending agreement.

“You’d have to ask 434 other members,” he said.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) also expressed frustration about the state of government appropriations, but rather than criticize Johnson, she lamented the dysfunction that McCarthy’s ouster has wrought.

“I actually think it’s really pathetic that our conference—well, eight of our Republicans and all the Democrats—threw out our speaker,” Greene said. “We didn’t vote on another appropriation bill since October. Not one. We’ve passed two CRs. Somebody came up with the idiotic idea to make two deadlines instead of one.”

“I used to call the House of Representatives ‘the House of Hypocrites,’” she added. “And that was under Pelosi. Now, it’s still the House of Hypocrites, only it’s under Republicans. I think it’s really pathetic.”

Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) was also critical of the spending agreement. He called Johnson someone who is “incredibly earnest, who truly cares about this country.”

“It’s a demonstration to all the members here how difficult it is to do the job of Speaker of the House,” he said of Johnson and his leadership during the appropriations fight. “It is a difficult job. And I think he’s doing the best he can.”

The drama around spending has contributed to a general sense of exhaustion brewing in the House GOP. Many members are exasperated that Congress is still discussing government funding for 2024 as initial deadlines for next year’s appropriations are on the horizon.

“It’s time to move on to 2025,” Rep. Mike Collins (R-GA) told The Daily Beast.

“This guy, he got the job in an awkward spot,” Collins said of Johnson. “He’s behind the eight ball already. He just needs to figure out how to get out from behind and move on.”

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