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Mike Johnson is again staring down a government shutdown — and his conference

The House returned to Washington on Wednesday with the goal of averting a partial government shutdown — a looming deadline that has become routine in the past several months as the notoriously fractious House Republican conference has fought against a Democratic Senate and the White House.

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), the conference’s nascent leader who has spent the past four months learning on the job while being pulled by opposite poles in his party, is once again days away from a government shutdown and staring down competing demands from his members. The conference is split almost down the middle on two pressing issues that Senate leaders and President Biden largely agree on: how to fund the government and sending aid to foreign democracies, particularly Ukraine.

As he faces two government shutdown deadlines over the next 10 days and pressure from all corners to aid Ukraine, Johnson has to weigh warring factors to either find consensus with bipartisan Senate leaders and the White House or cave to the far-right’s wishes to walk away from negotiations. The former could cost him his job.

But the lack of unity among House Republicans, whose first year in the majority was defined by their inability to agree on must-address issues, has weakened Johnson’s hand as he negotiates without a cohesive message on conservative demands. And many GOP lawmakers and aides said Johnson’s thinking is further complicated as he struggles to marry his own hard-line conservative ideology with his desire to govern.

Johnson has agreed with appropriators and other congressional leaders that they need to buy more time to pass funding bills through each chamber, proposing to Democrats late Tuesday the option to extend Friday’s deadline by a week and the March 8 deadline by two weeks, according to two people familiar with the offer. The deal, which the four congressional leaders and top appropriators agreed to Wednesday, is contingent on passing half of the 12 appropriations bills by next week, allowing for more time to work through more controversial funding legislation as Johnson aims to ensure this is the last short-term funding extension. The House is expected to vote on the stopgap measure on Thursday.

While Republican lawmakers acknowledge the unworkable position Johnson is in, concerns about Johnson’s “listen, then decide” approach have also amplified over the past month, leaving the conference feeling united in at least one thing: its disillusionment about a path forward.

“I have no confidence this ends well for House GOP,” said one House Republican, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about feelings within the conference.

The speaker’s allies argue that Johnson was put in an impossible position to lead a divided conference — a job he sought — and that the conference should unite behind him to strengthen his hands in negotiations. Johnson himself has been open publicly and in closed-door meetings with Republicans that there is only so much their two-seat majority can do if they remain fractured.

Complicating Johnson’s fate are the taunts from some lawmakers who have floated ousting him from the speakership — a move that would descend the House into further chaos, as it did last year when Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was removed. Detractors have decried another possible stopgap measure — the third in four months — that would extend current funding levels while giving appropriators more time to finish fiscal year funding bills, even though the group has contributed to the delay by moving the goal posts on their demands. They also are vehemently opposed to putting a Ukraine funding bill on the floor for a vote.

Members of the House Freedom Caucus also are angry with Johnson for trying to sell the previous stopgap measure as necessary to negotiate a number of conservative funding wins, only to tell lawmakers in a call last week to lower their expectations.

“I don’t think anybody on this call thinks that we’re going to be able to use the appropriations process to fundamentally remake major areas of policy,” Johnson told members on a Friday call, according to multiple people familiar with his comments. “If you’re expecting a lot of home runs and grand slams here, I admit you’ll be disappointed.”

Several Freedom Caucus members were critical for what they claimed was Johnson moving the goal post. After meeting with Johnson on Wednesday evening, Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), who chairs the group, said he would vote against the stopgap measure and hoped the speaker wouldn’t bring a bill to the floor that does not have a majority of Republican support.

Freedom Caucus members are instead pushing Johnson to pass an extension of current funding levels until Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year — a plan they initially were against — which would trigger a 7 to 10 percent cut in nondefense discretionary spending based on parameters agreed to by Biden and McCarthy in last year’s debt ceiling deal. But if lawmakers continue to use temporary funding extensions beyond April 30, that would instead trigger a 1 percent cut of current funding, which would include defense, veterans, Pell grants and other priorities that Democrats and Republicans — particularly defense hawks — are eager to avoid.

Freedom Caucus members have also made other demands. In a letter sent to the speaker last week, they listed almost two dozen requests they would want to see addressed in appropriation bills that would sour support for approval in the Senate. They included reducing Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’s salary to $0, defunding Planned Parenthood, ending “radical” climate change initiatives by the Biden administration and other culture war measures.

Pragmatic lawmakers have urged Johnson to ignore the demands of the far right, arguing that they are likely to still vote against any proposal Johnson makes because it isn’t conservative enough. The latter perspective paired with a razor-thin majority has forced GOP leadership to rely on Democratic votes to pass legislation, which further irritates the far-right flank.

In a floor speech Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that a shutdown “is entirely avoidable” and urged House Republicans to give up on culture war demands.

“I’ll say at the outset what I’ve said every time Congress has faced this threat: Shutting down the government is harmful to the country. And it never produces positive outcomes — on policy or politics,” McConnell said. “As always, the task at hand will require that everyone rows in the same direction: toward clean appropriations and away from poison pills.”

In a meeting with Biden on Tuesday, top Democratic leaders and Johnson all expressed optimism that the first four funding bills could broker a compromise soon. House Republicans are largely in agreement to avoid a government shutdown where many know their party would get blamed for being unable to govern, especially ahead of consequential primaries Tuesday.

But the fissures between House Republicans’ persistent demand to include border security in any Ukraine funding bill led to what was described by congressional leaders as an “intense” and “honest” meeting with Biden. Johnson said his purpose in the meeting, with leaders and then separately with Biden, was “to express what I believe is the obvious truth, and that is that we must take care of America’s needs first.” He added that he was “clear with the president and all those in the room that the House is actively pursuing and investigating all the various options” to fund Ukraine but that fixing the border remains the priority.

According to multiple people familiar with the meeting, Biden and the congressional leaders hammered Johnson for not prioritizing aiding Ukraine in its war against Russia. One of those people said Johnson told leaders that it wasn’t helpful to gang up on him for expressing a dominant opinion among his conference and that exerting more pressure on him to cave wouldn’t garner a different outcome.

“I think Speaker Johnson has a decision to make. Is he going to go down in history as Neville Chamberlain, or is he going to write his own story?” said Sen. Chris Murphy (Conn.), the Democrat who brokered the Senate bipartisan border deal. “So he just has to make a decision if he wants to hand deliver Ukraine to [Russian President] Vladimir Putin as the lead story on his political obituary.”

Schumer said that after the meeting that Johnson wants to find a way to fund Ukraine but that he also “made it clear he’s in a difficult position in a caucus with a margin of two.” McConnell, who Democratic leaders said was animated in his defense of Ukraine even though Republicans in his conference are split on the issue, said his hope was that the House would consider the Senate supplemental funding bill aiding foreign democracies, warning that any changes made to it would result only in “further delays.”

“Not only do we not want to shut the government down, but we don’t want the Russians to win in Ukraine. And so, we have a time problem here,” McConnell said at his weekly news conference Tuesday. “The best way to move quickly and get the bill to the president is for the House to take up the Senate bill and pass it.”

Jacob Bogage and Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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