House conservatives fume over deal backed by Johnson

Hard-line conservatives are up in arms over the bipartisan government funding deal endorsed by Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), but heading into this week’s vote to prevent a partial shutdown, they’ve been forced to acknowledge they’re all but powerless to block it.

Members of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus have urged Johnson to demand deep cuts in spending and scores of conservative policy changes — including tougher border security — as part of the two 2024 funding packages moving through Congress this month. Absent those provisions, they’ve pressed the Speaker to abandon the 2024 talks and pursue an alternate strategy to keep spending at current 2023 levels through the remainder of the fiscal year.

Johnson’s weekend endorsement of a “minibus” deal, which includes six bills that will fund a slew of agencies through September, essentially ignores the entreaties of his right flank.

The package excludes a number of the policy riders demanded by the conservatives while providing billions of dollars in funding over 2023 levels — an increase established by last summer’s debt ceiling deal between President Biden and former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

The deal has infuriated the hard-liners, who are accusing GOP leaders of bailing on the party’s promises to use its House majority to bring fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets to Washington.

And the critics aren’t mincing words.

“This #omnibus spending bill (divided into 2 “minibus” bills to hide it) will spend $1.65 [trillion] ($30 [billion]+ more than Pelosi), is littered with earmarks, fails to secure the border, & punts almost every GOP policy win – thus, will fund most of Biden’s lawlessness & tyranny,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) wrote Monday on X, formerly known as Twitter.

While the conservatives are fuming, however, they don’t seem ready to use the last tool at their disposal: The motion to oust the Speaker — which led to McCarthy’s demise in October — threw the GOP conference into chaos for three weeks and prevented the House from conducting any legislative business after Hamas’s unprecedented attack on Israel.

“Speaker Johnson inherited a bad situation,” said Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), who supported McCarthy’s ouster over spending deals. “With the former Speaker leaving early he’s really put us in a very bad spot. So this Speaker’s just having to maintain. … That’s about all he can do.”

That reluctant resignation reflects both the simple math of the House, where Republicans control just a slim majority, and the political realities of a divided Washington, where Democrats control both the White House and Senate and every major legislative achievement necessarily requires bipartisan buy-in.

Those dynamics have left Johnson with a choice in the budget fights: He can either forge deals with Democrats to keep the government open, or he can side with the hard-liners and demand steep cuts in spending, which would likely lead to a shutdown.

Time and time again, Johnson has chosen the former.

Since winning the gavel last October, he’s endorsed three short-term funding patches, known as continuing resolutions (CRs), to keep the government’s lights on. And in supporting this week’s 2024 minibus, he again chose bipartisan compromise over the scorched-earth strategy of his restive right flank.

In announcing his support, Johnson framed it as a big win for conservatives and taxpayers alike.

“House Republicans secured key conservative policy victories, rejected left-wing proposals, and imposed sharp cuts to agencies and programs critical to President Biden’s agenda,” Johnson said Sunday in a statement.

That’s done little to appease the conservative firebrands who wanted steeper cuts. And the Speaker will likely be forced to bring the minibus to the floor this week using a fast-track procedural tactic, known as the suspension calendar, to deny those conservatives an opportunity to block the spending package from receiving a vote.

The moves by Johnson are not new — he brought the past three CRs to the floor under suspension of the rules, clearing them with help from Democrats — but the recurrence has rankled conservatives, who are approaching wit’s end as they prepare to vote on another bipartisan spending bill.

“Unfortunately it’s just the makeup of the … conference. It’s just not a conservative conference,” Rep. Eli Crane (R-Ariz.) said last week. “It’s unfortunate.”

Unveiled Sunday, the six-bill spending package provides roughly $460 billion to fund a handful of agencies through September, including the departments of Agriculture, Interior, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, Justice, Commerce and Energy. Congress faces a Friday deadline to pass the legislation, while funding for the remaining agencies lapses on March 22.

The agreement features some notable wins for conservatives and liberals alike — lending leaders in both parties ammunition to sell the package to their respective ranks.

Democrats, for example, have highlighted increased funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — commonly known as WIC — while Republicans have pointed to a number of areas where funding was slashed, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Republicans have also cited a provision that prevents the sale of oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to China.

Johnson is also expected to promote the package as legislation that broke the “omnibus fever” — a source familiar told The Hill, citing a slide at a conference communications meeting on Monday — playing into the hatred conservatives have for the sprawling, typically end-of-year spending bills.

That messaging, however, is doing little to win support from hard-liners, who are billing the package as a weak policy crafted by the D.C. “swamp” and arguing it is essentially an omnibus because it includes six spending bills.

“The Swamp’s first spending package is out,” Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.) wrote in a thread on X that ticked through “all the policy wins that were SURRENDERED during backroom negotiations.”

Roy, a prominent spending hawk, bashed the minibus on X while responding to a post from Elon Musk, which said America needs secure borders, safe cities and sensible spending.

“[H]int: the Omni bills this week aren’t this,” Roy wrote.

But even as the hard-liners air their frustrations out in the open, conservatives are not going after Johnson’s gavel — for now — recognizing the tight spot the Speaker is in just months after ascending to the top job.

“Mike’s a good friend and he’s dealing with a tough, you know, hand,” Roy told reporters last week when asked if he has faith in Johnson’s leadership. “We’ll keep working and trying to move the ball forward. But you know, look, this is not the call I would have made and I think everybody knows that.”

Nick Robertson contributed to this report, which was updated at 9:50 a.m.

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