Washington stares down the barrel of the first shutdown of 2024

Republican House faces risk — or opporunity — of paralysing US government

John Bowden
Washington DC
Tuesday 27 February 2024 20:09 GMT
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Mike Johnson’s first big moment of 2024 is here.

With Congress under a 1 March deadline to reauthorise several major government programs, Washington is once again playing shutdown roulette. And all eyes are on the House of Representatives, where a two-vote GOP majority holds the chamber and Mr Johnson faces the constant threat of being ousted by his own colleagues.

On Friday, funding for a wide range of government programs under four major umbrellas will cease: Military Construction and Veterans Affairs; Energy and Water Development; Transportation, Housing and Urban Development; Agriculture, Rural Development, and the Food and Drug Administration. The immediate effects would not be devastating, though federal workers could see their paychecks suspended and many public-facing operations of government — like Veterans Affairs offices — would temporarily shutter.

In the past, some hardline conservatives including former President Donald Trump have supported the idea of shutting down the government, arguing that the costs are worth pressuring Democrats and even centrist Republicans into accepting concessions to the right.

The Speaker of the House assured reporters that the House was working to prevent this on Tuesday. But questions remain as to whether he will face a rebellion from conservatives in his caucus if he attempts to pass a clean spending bill before the deadline on Friday. There’s already been some grumbling about that, including from Rep Chip Roy who urged Republicans to “pick a fight and win it” in a lengthy Twitter thread.

That same resistance exists within the Senate GOP as well, though not to a degree that is likely to prevent a clean funding bill from passing the chamber in time.

With the House’s two-seat majority, however, Mr Johnon’s far-right colleagues have more leverage on him than ever, and they just recently flexed it against him to kill the Senate’s funding bill for Ukraine and Israel aid. Mr Johnson almost certainly has the votes to pass a clean appropriations bill for government services if he wishes; whether he will do that or demand cuts back to pre-Covid levels or other concessions from Democrats isn’t yet clear either.

Bob Good, chair of the House Freedom Caucus, told reporters in January that Mr Johnson should not expect his caucus’s votes on other Republican priorities if he continued cutting deals to pass continuing funding resolutions for government services, though he did not go as far as threatening the Speaker’s job outright.

“If you don’t need our votes for the material bills that matter for the country — such as funding the government and our major spending packages — and you continue to pass those under suspension of the rules with predominantly Democratic votes, then don’t presume you’re going to have our votes for the messaging bills that don’t matter, that make us feel better, but are dead on arrival in the Senate,” he said.

Perhaps the best sign for Mr Johnson: It’s all quiet in Florida, where two of the loudest GOP rabble-rousers reside. Neither Donald Trump nor Rep Matt Gaetz, leader of the GOP gang of eight that ousted former speaker Kevin McCarthy, are openly calling for a shutdown (yet). Should that change the entire calculus of the next four days changes with it.

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