Speaker Mike Johnson once again stuck in the middle as funding deadline looms

If there is a master plan to keep the government funded through March 1, no one seems to know what it is yet on Capitol Hill.

With just days until a partial government shutdown and lawmakers out on recess until next week, House Republicans are divided over the best path ahead with Speaker Mike Johnson yet to make a call and House and Senate appropriators still haggling over conservative policy riders deemed poison pills by Democrats.

It’s a messy and complicated situation that comes as Johnson is still grappling with how to lead his unruly and narrow majority and as patience is running thin for the inexperienced speaker who has already punted several funding deadlines since taking the gavel.

“Now, we are in a fully Johnson-run House, and he’s got to own all the decision making in the 12 appropriations bills. That’s probably not best for him. Probably not best for public policy either,” Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said. “It’s actually drug out what is sort of inevitable here, which is we will either perform to the (spending caps) or have a government shutdown.”

In January, Johnson announced a deal with the Senate to fund the government at $1.66 trillion much to the frustration of his right flank. But the fight over where that money goes and what programs get funded has dragged on for weeks now, with appropriators working around the clock to try and reach a deal before the next government funding deadline on March 1. Johnson is facing pressure from members of the House Freedom Caucus to include dozens of policy riders that would never pass in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Earlier this week, Johnson huddled with members of his leadership team in Florida, but sources present said that Johnson didn’t articulate or lay out a specific path to keeping the government funded, instead summarizing how the process worked and signaling he hoped a deal could come together next week that he could put on the floor.

On Wednesday, members of the House Freedom Caucus upped the ante in a letter to Johnson, imploring him to give them a status update on appropriations talks and warning that if he couldn’t secure a series of conservative policy riders including items like zeroing out Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’s salary, defunding Planned Parenthood and blocking funding a new FBI building, he would be better off moving to pass a one-year continuing resolution that would fund the government at current levels but would be subject to automatic cuts across the board after April 30.

“If we are not going to secure significant policy changes or even keep spending below the caps adopted by bipartisan majorities less than one year ago, why would we proceed when we could instead pass a year-long funding resolution that would save Americans $100 billion in year one?” members of the HFC wrote in their letter Wednesday.

The letter, which was signed by 28 Republicans, underscores the competing pressure Johnson is facing. With such little time left, Johnson’s universe of plays to avoid a shutdown is narrowing. When House Republicans return next Wednesday, they’ll have a little more than 48 hours to act before funding for the Department of Agriculture, Military Construction and Veteran’s Affairs, Transportation and Housing and Energy and Water Development will expire.

Just a week later, funding for the rest of the government will also lapse.

Sources involved tell CNN that House and Senate appropriators have been working in good faith to try and finish each of the 12 appropriations bills, figuring out how to dole out $1.66 trillion in funding that leaders agreed to earlier this year. But, those same sources say a series of controversial policy riders had slowed progress. Complicated issues have been kicked up to the leadership level where it’s not clear they can be resolved quickly, especially if Johnson digs in. And if negotiators can’t announce a deal by the weekend or early next week, it’s unclear how even a few of those bills could pass in time.

That means Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer could be staring down yet another short-term spending patch, something that Johnson has repeatedly said he didn’t want to do, in part because it could land him in hot water with his right flank. Congress has already passed three, short-term spending bills – called a “continuing resolution” or “CR” – since September to keep the government funded for this fiscal year – one of which triggered a motion to oust Kevin McCarthy from the speakership. Now, appropriators are warning Congress will soon need to turn its attention on passing next year’s bills.

“Most of us are just tired of this CR business,” Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican from Nebraska, said. “It’s not good for the military.”

Congress also is facing a May 1 deadline for passing full-year spending bills, or federal agencies will be subjected to across-the-board and automatic spending cuts that opponents argue would devastate the Defense Department and indiscriminately slash domestic programs. That provision was part of the debt ceiling bill that passed last summer, meant to be an incentive for Congress to get its work done on time.

For months, Johnson has struggled to control and contain his shrinking majority. Members of the House Freedom Caucus have continued to tank procedural votes known as rules on the House floor, and the House failed to impeach Mayorkas the first time because of attendance issues (he was later impeached in a subsequent vote). Johnson also had to pull plans to vote on a reauthorization of section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for a second time last week because of divisions in GOP ranks, and Johnson is still grappling with how to handle moving ahead with aid to Ukraine, something that defense hawks in his conference are clamoring for and isolationist conservatives have warned could end his tenure as speaker.

Conservatives told CNN they are skeptical Johnson will be able to secure many wins in spending talks with Democrats, but to this point, many stop short of placing all the blame on Johnson.

“I assume the plan is to do what they’ve always done,” Rep. Warren Davidson, a Republican from Ohio, said. “Have the four corners sit together in a room and bless some giant stack of paper that probably no one person has read all of anywhere and say ‘Well, that’s what we’re gonna put on the floor.’”

Asked if it made a difference if a package passed in one big bill or a series of smaller packages known as minibuses, Davidson quipped, “Getting hit by one bus isn’t a whole lot different than getting hit by two.”

Rep. Andy Biggs, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, told CNN his prediction was leadership would pass an omnibus or a series of minibuses.

“We’ve moved down the wrong path. We could exit it, but people would have to really eat up a lot of, whether it be political will or whatever, to move over to a more optimal path, and I think they’re locked in,” Biggs said.

Rep. Dan Bishop, a Republican from North Carolina, quipped, “I think we are going to suddenly develop the resolve to make fundamental change and make substantial fiscal reform, and the Senate is gonna go along because they want to save the country. I don’t think any of that will happen. I think we will see another omnibus appropriation bill.”

Asked if that causes a problem for Johnson, Bishop argued, “The speaker didn’t create those problems.”

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