Senators Could Save Mike Johnson’s Signature Idea—But Does the Right Care?

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With the deadline to prevent a partial government shutdown just eight days away, Congress must act fast to reach an agreement on federal spending. Yet, members of the hard right are suggesting that any deal that does not meet their demands could cost Mike Johnson his job as Speaker.

Senate leaders from both parties have said to avert a shutdown they will need to pass a “continuing resolution” to push back the impending January 19 deadline on four appropriations bills to give them enough time to move legislation. Members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, however, oppose such a move, and leaders within the group have suggested they’d file a motion to oust Johnson if he doesn’t meet their demands.

One of Johnson’s signature innovations as Speaker was introducing a “laddered” CR that staggered the spending bill deadlines, with the due date on the remaining eight bills falling on February 2, to incentivize lawmakers to get started early to pass the 12 bills on time. Republicans on the Appropriations suggested they’d advocate to keep the laddered structure in place if it helps Johnson save face with the right.

“I’ll just leave it up to the Speaker to pick a date he feels comfortable with [for a CR deadline],” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a member of the Appropriations Committee, told Newsweek.

Speaking with reporters, Maine Senator Susan Collins, the top Republican appropriator, said she’s heard that the House remains interested in the laddered approach, and, although she did not originally support the idea, she accepts the potential move if it helps get the bills to President Joe Biden’s desk.

However, offering Johnson the opportunity to pick up a victory by showing his laddered idea can work may not be enough to stave off discontent from his right. Republican Congressman Andy Biggs of Arizona, an influential former Freedom Caucus Chair and one of eight Republicans who voted to oust former Speaker Kevin McCarthy said a laddered approach may no longer be relevant.

“The reason that I was intrigued by the laddered two-step approach to begin with was because it was going to be conditioned on certain spending reductions and programmatic changes, and they didn’t do any of those,” Biggs told Newsweek. “So, at this point, it’s like, ‘What did you gain from it?’ You lost all your leverage.”

U.S. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson at the U.S. Capitol November 29, 2023, in Washington, D.C. Johnson’s signature innovation, the “laddered” continuing resolution, could soon fail if Congress does not act.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The leverage Biggs believes Johnson lost came when the Speaker agreed to a top-line spending deal with Schumer that Johnson said would cut spending by $16 billion, but conservatives believe it does not go far enough in lowering spending and implementing their policy priorities.

Biggs and other Republicans want to see that deal renegotiated but remain adamant that Congress must not pass a CR. If lawmakers cannot move the four bills by the January 19 deadline and a shutdown occurs, Biggs said legislation he plans to offer would ensure that “necessary programs,” like those tending to veterans and national security, are funded. However, Democrats would be hesitant to grant Biggs such a win if he and his allies pressured Johnson to reject a CR.

Back in the Senate, Republican leadership remains focused on the challenge ahead of reaching a funding agreement and averting a shutdown.

Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Vice Chair of the Senate Republican Conference and member of the Appropriations Committee, said that while maintaining a laddered approach to funding is worth pondering, the bills ultimately need to be passed, and so far, Congress continues to extend deadlines without producing results.

“I think what we’re gonna end up doing is having to combine them because I don’t know how else we do it because the harder ones are the ones that are later, the February 2 ones,” Capito told Newsweek. “I think [the potential deadlines] are probably a matter of time like how much time do we have to consider these? But we’re not even considering them when we do have the time. It’s very frustrating.”