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White House Prepares for Johnson to Fail

No, we don't mean that the administration is stocking up on little blue pills. We mean that, unless Congress acts by Friday, the government will shut down. To prevent a shutdown, both chambers must agree on a plan. The easiest plan is to pass a continuing resolution, kicking the can down the road. But when then-speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) did just that earlier this year, the Freedom Caucus, which thrives on chaos, fired him. The big question now is whether the current (and very inexperienced) speaker, Mike Johnson (R-LA), can herd the cats and get something passed by Friday. The Senate is not expected to be a problem and will likely sign onto whatever Johnson can manage, as long as it is within reason.

The White House doesn't really expect him to succeed, but is working on two plans. The first plan is for a shutdown. Team Biden doesn't really want one, but is aware that the Republicans are almost certainly going to get most of the blame if one happens, so it doesn't see it as a disaster. Bill Clinton's comeback after the 1994 rout started when the Republicans shut down the country. In 2018-2019, there was another (35-day) shutdown, and Donald Trump got the blame. So although Biden certainly won't say it out loud, he probably would welcome a situation in which everyone compares him to the alternative rather than to the almighty.

If a shutdown occurs, Biden is going to loudly focus on the negative effects of it, including forcing service members and law enforcement personnel to work without pay. It won't be hard to find affected people who will be happy to explain that their families are in danger of being evicted because no pay means not paying the rent. It will be easy to get the shutdown out of the realm of the abstract and show how it is causing huge problems for actual people. Biden will also talk about how public health is affected if government-run agencies and clinics shut down. There is plenty of material to work with, and the administration is planning to do so if there is a shutdown.

The second plan is what to do if the government does stay open. Biden is going to push hard on getting funding for Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan through the House. Among other things, he is going to keep saying that failing to approve aid for Ukraine is being "soft on Iran" (because Iran is a major supplier of attack drones to Russia). No Republican wants to be accused of being soft on Iran. Biden has made it clear already that a bill that funds Israel but not Ukraine is dead on arrival.

Johnson has a plan, but it is far from certain that he can get it through the House. He wants to kick the can to Jan. 19, 2024, on appropriations for agriculture, energy, water, military construction, and Veterans Affairs. Everything else would be funded through Feb. 2, 2024.

But even if Johnson is able to buy a couple of months' time on some of the funding bills, the actual content of the bills is highly contentious. Freedom Caucus members want to cut some departments by 30%. The Biden 18 will never go along with that. What then? Johnson could work with the Democrats, but they would undoubtedly demand concessions that will make the FC members go apoplectic. But somehow Johnson has to come up with a bill that can pass the House and also pass the Senate. Telling the Senate to suck it up and approve the House bill or face a shutdown is not going to work when Democrats believe a shutdown works for them. It will be interesting to see if Johnson is up to the job.

And we will find out very soon. The House Rules Committee will take up the 32-page bill to fund the government for a couple of months today. One member of the Rules Committee, Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX), said: "My opposition to the clean CR just announced by the Speaker ... cannot be overstated. Funding Pelosi level spending and policies for 75 days—for future promises." That doesn't sound like an "aye" vote to us, but who knows. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Warren Davidson (R-OH) are also on record against a clean CR, without cuts. Johnson can afford to lose only four votes if all the Democrats vote against him just to show he can't govern.

Fundamentally, the Freedom Caucus' model of governance is hostage-taking. They have fewer than 10% of the votes in one chamber of Congress, no leverage over the other chamber at all, and lack the White House. Their model is to take something the other people value (a functioning government) and hold it hostage until they get what they want. In less polarized times, the speaker would negotiate a deal with the minority leader and pass it with many Democratic votes. But that could be political suicide right now. (V)

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