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When it comes to the next shutdown fight in Congress, silence is golden

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It sometimes seems like Congress wrestles with a potential government shutdown every month these days.

Such was the case just five weeks ago, under the leadership of a former House speaker, whose name may as well have been lost to history.

It’s still the case today as Congress, now under the watch of new House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., hurtles toward a potential shutdown at the end of next week.

For your calendars, government funding expires at 11:59:59 p.m. on Nov. 17. The government is out of dough at 12:00:00 a.m. Nov. 18. Just in time for Thanksgiving. 

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Louisiana Republican Rep. Mike Johnson

Representative Mike Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana, speaks after becoming US House speaker in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023. (Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Silence is golden when it comes to determining where the sides stand to avoid a shutdown late next week.

This reporter asked House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., on Tuesday afternoon if the House would put an interim spending bill on the floor this week. 

“We’re still discussing things,” relied Scalise.

Another reporter asked Johnson if he would unveil a stopgap spending package this week or wait until next week.

“I’m not going to comment on that yet,” replied a harried Johnson as he hustled from the speaker’s office to the House floor.

In recent days, Johnson floated the idea of a “laddered” CR — short for “continuing resolution.” A CR simply avoids a shutdown by temporarily renewing all old funding at the same levels to keep the lights on. 

Johnson lofted the “laddered” CR as a trial balloon. The concept was to fund some agencies and departments right away (a lower step of the ladder) while waiting to produce other bills down the line on a higher “rung” of the ladder.

“You’ve got a clean CR option. You’ve got a laddered approach, which is what I support,” said Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C. “Hopefully that’s what we’ll end up doing.”

Government funding expires at 11:59:59 pm et on November 17. (Chip Somodevilla)

But like most ladders, Johnson’s laddered CR gambit should come with a warning from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Chevy Chase had more stability on the ladder he stood on while portraying late President Gerald Ford before tumbling over the Christmas tree on Saturday Night Live.

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“I don’t really understand the laddered option,” said Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb. “I’d probably [be for] a straight CR through mid-January or late January.

But no one is hitting the panic button yet. Senate Republicans are waiting on the House. Some House members told Fox they were waiting on the Senate. A senior Senate leadership source told Fox that during the previous run-up to the Oct. 1 government funding deadline, former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was in “constant communication” with the Senate Democratic leadership team. 

Not as much with Johnson. Such outreach is crucial because the Senate often requires more time to process a bill. Especially something as controversial as an interim CR. It may be a week-and-a-half before the funding deadline. But unless something moves quickly, lawmakers may have missed the deadline already. That’s because of the Senate’s complicated parliamentary mechanics.

“I’m not sure [Johnson] gets that yet,” said one House Republican ally of Johnson about the Senate’s arcane practices.

So there’s no panic yet on Capitol Hill — if for no other reason that no one seems to know which panic button to press.

Johnson talks supplemental aid package

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., talks with reporters ahead of the debate and vote on supplemental aid to Israel, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023.  (J. Scott Applewhite)

Johnson may still enjoy goodwill extended to him from rank-and-file Republicans during a honeymoon period. But some of that charity is eroding. It was politically deft of Johnson to immediately build political capital with conservatives by depositing a bill on the floor last week to immediately send aid to Israel — and pay for it by raiding coffers at the IRS.

But maneuvering around the challenging politics of the House Republican Conference is simple compared to working with House Democrats and wrangling with the Senate. Remember, it was a band of eight House Republicans who showed McCarthy the door for cutting a deal with Democrats to avert a fall shutdown. Many conservatives were also smarting from McCarthy negotiating a pact with President Biden to avoid a collision with the debt ceiling in the spring. More House Democrats supported that package than did Republicans.

So, Johnson is treading on unforgiving ground.

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“He was always going to get pushback,” said one veteran House Republican. “That pushback starts now.”

It’s doubtful the “pushback” is catastrophic to Johnson the way it was with McCarthy. At least yet. Republicans seem to trust Johnson more than they did McCarthy. McCarthy had a decade-and-a-half in House GOP leadership to build up both good and bad will. The bad will — deserved or not — did him in. 

“They just trust Johnson more,” said one GOPer.

Representative Kevin McCarthy,

Rep. Kevin McCarthy was outed as Speaker of the House. (Kent Nishimura)

But the cracks are already visible. You don’t even have to squint. 

“Here we’ve got a new speaker that’s getting ready to do a CR. I voted against the other CRs. I won’t be voting for this one. We’ve got a new Speaker that’s interested in funding foreign wars. That’s not what our voters want,” ranted Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. “I’m just refusing to be a part of a system of failure. I’d like to see a change in our party.” 

Greene also railed against the House’s 2024 legislative calendar, just published this week by Scalise. She explained how the vaunted “August recess” contributes annually to a fire drill on Capitol Hill over government funding ahead of the September 30 fiscal year deadline 

“We had a new schedule come out for next year. Didn’t change anything,” complained Greene. “We’re out for all of August and the first week of September. We’re only in session three weeks going into September 30 when the government shutdown happens again. So it’s unfortunate that the same things keep occurring.” 

There has been a lot of chatter on Capitol Hill about President Biden’s international aid supplemental spending package for Isarel, Ukraine and Taiwain. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., spoke this week with President Biden and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. McConnell says he’s “generally sympathetic with the broad approach to the supplemental.” But he’s insistent on increasing border security as a part of that package. That means McConnell won’t try to attach anything to a CR. McConnell also signaled he’s open to a “clean” CR. He also hinted that it did not matter to him where the aid to Israel landed. 

Marjorie Taylor Greene during Biden State of the Union address

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., said she “won’t be voting” for the CR. (J. Scott Applewhite)

In short, the supplemental aid package is next month’s project. So we’ll talk about that in December. 

But, there’s relative silence so far on what an immediate package to fund the government may look like. Part of that is because Johnson and the rest of the Republican leadership brass knows there may be only one thing which can pass: a clean CR. Remember, that is precisely what McCarthy advanced at the very last moment to avert a shutdown this past September 30. He was toast the following week. 

Johnson & company are also reluctant to say much simply because they may know that a clean CR is inevitable. It would likely pass with a cocktail of Republican and Democratic votes – especially if it sticks to the spending levels negotiated by the President and McCarthy ahead of the debt ceiling. 

To many House Republicans, the term “CR” is toxic. That’s why Johnson tried to alter the terminology with a “laddered” CR. Hint: it’s really just a version of an appropriations “minibus” where lawmakers lump several spending bills together.

However, Republicans are divided over this approach. But it could be how Johnson addresses this situation.

Republicans could find themselves hemmed in. Due internal fights, the House had to punt — again — the annual Transportation and Housing spending bill.

Kevin McCarthy in the House chamber

Republicans find themselves struggling to approve some of their own spending plans. That’s why they may need to rely on a CR. (Kent Nishimura)

Republicans find themselves struggling to approve some of their own spending plans. That’s why they may need to rely on a CR — and Democrats — to avoid a shutdown.

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The right will hammer Johnson if that happens — even if a CR is the only way to avoid a shutdown.

Thus, it may best to say as little about it as possible — until absolutely necessary.

Government shutdowns threats could come at any time of the year. This time it’s November. The month is clear. But few know what to say about it. 


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