Voices: Can Mike Johnson survive the shutdown buzzsaw that ended McCarthy?

Here we go again. While President Joe Biden heads to the West Coast for the APEC summit in San Francisco, Congress will return today as it faces a looming shutdown on Friday. The spending showdown will serve as the first major test for newly-installed House Speaker Mike Johnson.

Of course, Mr Johnson, who won the unamimous support of the House Republican conference after 22 days without a speaker, faces dueling interests. On one end, he actually has to prove he knows how to wrangle his conference to pass a continuing resolution and keep the government open. On the other, he has to keep Republicans sufficiently satisfied because the last time a speaker passed a “clean” continuing resolution, eight Republicans revolted and led the charge to eject Kevin McCarthy.

Republicans as a whole dislike passing continuing resolutions, which they see as a way to maintain the status quo without putting in place any spending cuts. Similarly, they also despise “omnibus” spending bills wherein all of the 12 major spending bills combine into one major spending bill.

Enter the “Laddered CR,” Mr Johnson’s scheme to keep everyone happy. On Saturday, Mr Johnson’s team released the legislation, which would keep the government open on a staggered level, with some parts being kept open until 19 January 2024 and other parts being kept open until 2 February 2024.

Tellingly, Mr Johnson did not include spending on the US-Mexico border, a top priority of many conservatives, or additional money for Ukraine, which many Republicans adamantly oppose. In addition, there is no spending for supplemental aid to Israel, given that House Republicans tied spending for Israel to gutting money that the Inflation Reduction Act, Democrats’ signature climate and health care law, allocated to the IRS.

Almost immediately, the White House spat out the concept, with press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre saying it was “just a recipe for more Republican chaos and more shutdown s— full stop” and that “House Republicans are wasting precious time with an unserious proposal that has been panned by members of both parties.”

It’s unsurprising that the White House would oppose such a measure. But the hardline conservatives also seemed to reject the proposal. Rep Chip Roy (R-TX), a member of the House Freedom Caucus, said that his opposition to the plan “cannot be overstated,” calling it on X, formerly known as Twitter, “Funding Pelosi level spending & policies for 75 days – for future “promises.”

But it’s not just Mr Roy who opposes such a plan. Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) noted how she has opposed clean continuing resolutions in the past and she would oppose this one too. She also called for a continuing resolution to close the border and stop “weaponized” government, which is code for defunding the investigations into former president Donald Trump. She also called for any spending bill to increase restrictions on immigration as well as for impeachments into Mr Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, FBI Director Chris Wray and US Attorney for the Washington DC Matthew Graves.

Obviously none of these things are happening. But the opposition from those two members who have feuded bitterly in recent months (with Ms Greene notably calling the bald and goateed Mr Roy “Colonel Sanders”) shows just how tight Mr Johnson’s margins are. But Mr Johnson might be the one who ends up Kentucky fried.

Meanwhile, Rep Scott Perry (R-PA), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, announced his opposition, meaning that plenty of members of the group of hellraisers feel the same way.

Mr Johnson still has to contend with the fact that he has only a nine-seat majority and that he can only afford to have four members of his conference break at any given moment if he hopes to have a party-line vote.

Increasingly, it looks like Mr Johnson will either have to let the government shutdown – which would be political cyanide and doom his more endangered members – or take the measure that Mr McCarthy took: pass a clean continuing resolution with the help of Democrats.

But doing so would automatically lead to conservatives staging a motion to vacate against him the same way they did to Mr McCarthy. Remember, Republicans have not done anything to change the rule allowing for a single member to file a motion to vacate.