The US’s budget deal is a victory for Mike Johnson. But for how long?

Far-right members of the Republican caucus have opposed the bipartisan budget bill, which averted a government shutdown.

Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson advanced a two-step short-term budget bill to avert a government shutdown in November [Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters]By Thomas O FalkPublished On 17 Nov 202317 Nov 2023

With just over a day to spare, the United States averted yet another government shutdown on Thursday night, as President Joe Biden signed a last-minute bill to keep federal agencies funded through the new year.

The bill was hailed as a bipartisan success — and as a key victory for newly minted House Speaker Mike Johnson, who was elected to the role only three weeks ago.

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But analysts say this short-term win might spell long-term trouble for Johnson, as he leads a fractured Republican caucus in the House of Representatives.

“Some people believe that Johnson’s success in passing the continuing resolution indicates that the far right in the GOP will go along with the new speaker,” said Richard F Bensel, a government professor at Cornell University.

“I read the event differently, because Johnson has deeply offended those far-right members, and they will now make life very difficult for him and the rest of the Republican Party.”

Government spending is a perennially divisive issue in the US Congress, with many Republicans pushing for greater budget cuts and Democrats often seeking to protect or expand social programmes.

But when the two parties fail to pass budget legislation, the government risks shuttering all its non-essential functions. That leaves government services in limbo and employees and contractors without pay, potentially harming the country’s overall economic growth.

Republicans and Democrats had set November 17 as their next deadline to pass new funding legislation. Faced with the prospect of an imminent shutdown, Johnson offered an unusual proposal: a two-step stopgap bill — or “continuing resolution” — that would allow government services to continue temporarily at current spending levels.

But the catch was that Congress would have to revisit the budget question twice in the new year. Funding for veterans services, housing, agriculture and energy would need to be voted on before January 19, and the remainder of the budget would have to be decided by February 2.

Nevertheless, Johnson’s bill proved to be a successful compromise. It passed the House on Tuesday with a vote of 336 to 95, thanks to the almost unanimous support from the Democrats.

It also sailed through the Democrat-controlled Senate, allowing Biden to sign it into law late on Thursday.

Johnson framed the bill’s passage as “a gift to the American people”, sparing the country any economic uncertainty and legislative deadlock.

“It’s going to change the way we’ve done this,” Johnson said of his two-step solution. “We have broken the fever.”

House Speaker Mike Johnson, with Republican leader Steve Scalise, left, and Majority Whip Tom Emmer, right, discusses the continuing resolution with reporters on November 14 [J Scott Applewhite/AP Photo]

Backlash from the Freedom Caucus

But the bill failed to wrest major concessions from the Democrats, including the significant budget cuts that the far right had called for. As a result, a total of 93 House Republicans voted against the continuing resolution, breaking ranks with Johnson.

“If we were keeping score — and, of course, everyone in Washington does — this is a clear win for the Democrats. Given the divided government, the Democrats would prefer such a continuing resolution all the way to February 2025,” Bensel, the Cornell University professor, said.

Among the Republican opposition was a group of about 30 self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives known as the Freedom Caucus. One of the caucus’s leaders, Representative Chip Roy, slammed the bill as a “strategic failure” and “mistake” that Johnson committed “right out of the gate”.

“When are we going to do what we said we would do?” Roy asked on the House floor. “When are we going to stand to thwart and stop the reckless spending?”

Critics have noted that the Freedom Caucus is often a disruptive presence in Congress, one that considers members of the Democratic Party as “enemies” and “Marxists”. Cooperation, therefore, is not an option.

Nicholas F Jacobs, a government professor at Colby College, said that scuttling bills like the budget resolution can actually pay political dividends for members of the Freedom Caucus.

“What makes them different is that they do not feel the same electoral pressures when the government shuts down as does every other member of Congress, Republican or Democrat,” Jacobs said.

In fact, he added, hardline tactics — even risking a government shutdown — can actually appeal to their far-right base. “They can still score points when they go on Twitter or Fox, claiming they’re doing everything possible to cut the national debt.”

Representative Chip Roy, centre, finds himself in a scrum of reporters as he leaves the Capitol in Washington, DC, on November 15 [Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters]

A speaker from the fringes

Though Johnson may have angered the Freedom Caucus, he retains his reputation as a far-right Republican himself. Jacobs warned that the bipartisan success of Johnson’s funding bill should not be seen as a shift to the centre for either Republicans or Democrats.

“I don’t think we can expect to see any pragmatic turn soon,” Jacobs said. “Democrats relish the fact that Republicans can’t govern at the moment.”

Bensel likewise cast doubt over whether the bipartisan spending bill signals an embrace of political pragmatism in Congress. Rather, Johnson is seen as part of a continuing shift rightward for the Republican Party.

Formerly a little-known representative from Louisiana, Johnson is considered a loyal supporter of former President Donald Trump and a key figure behind the effort to subvert the 2020 election, which Trump lost.

“On social and cultural issues, Johnson is even more of an abomination for Democrats than is Donald Trump, which will complicate pragmatic politics,” Bensel said.

Bensel also noted Johnson’s prominent embrace of the Christian right. In his first interview as speaker, Johnson told TV host Sean Hannity that his worldview was shaped by the Bible.

“His evangelical Christian beliefs place him at the fringe of the GOP, a party that is otherwise known for its religious commitments,” Bensel said. “Johnson’s devout beliefs may, in the end, trip him up if he is forced to choose between them and more pragmatic politics.”

Representative Mike Johnson, left, shakes hands with removed House Speaker Kevin McCarthy before his successful election to the leadership post on October 25 [File: Alex Brandon/AP Photo]

A study in contrasts

Regardless of Johnson’s political and religious leanings, Bensel questions whether any Republican speaker can keep ahold of the gavel in the bitterly divided House.

Just a month and a half ago, on October 3, far-right members of the party led a successful effort to overthrow Johnson’s predecessor, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, after he also agreed to a bipartisan budget compromise. McCarthy had only been speaker for nine months.

“It may be that no Republican can survive very long as speaker in the current House,” Bensel said.

But Bensel and other analysts acknowledged there were key differences between McCarthy and Johnson that may shape their respective fates as party leaders.

Robert Y Shapiro, a government professor at Columbia University, told Al Jazeera that McCarthy was not seen as a stalwart enough supporter of the far right.

“He was not enough of a backer of all matters related to Trump and vigorously denying the election,” Shapiro explained. “He was not a visible backer of the Freedom Caucus and right-wing rhetoric and craziness, and was seen as more willing to work with Democrats.”

He added that Johnson’s dark-horse status as a speaker candidate proved to be an advantage.

“Johnson, meanwhile, was not well known, so without McCarthy’s baggage, and he has been a strong supporter of Trump — and a fellow election denier,” Shapiro said.

Representative Kevin McCarthy of California was removed as House speaker after bringing a budget stopgap proposal to a vote in September [J Scott Applewhite/AP Photo]

McCarthy’s removal as speaker in October triggered a prolonged search for a replacement, one that shone a spotlight on the disarray in the Republican Party.

It took three weeks of party in-fighting and multiple votes for Johnson to emerge victorious. Shapiro said the Republicans are likely looking to project an image of stability moving forward — and that will help protect Johnson’s position as speaker, at least over the short term.

“They also will not boot him since Republicans in the House realise how bad booting him and another battle for Speaker would look,” he said.

Moreover, with the 2024 presidential election looming, Shapiro believes that the rift within the Republican Party has an expiration date.

“In the end, the 2024 election, those divisions will disappear in terms of virtually all Republican members of Congress and the Senate supporting Trump or whoever the GOP nominee is.”

Source: Al Jazeera