House Republicans will return to Washington on Tuesday once again staring down divisions within the conference over how to fund the government.
Following weeks of negotiations, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., announced Sunday that they had agreed to a $1.66 trillion funding deal that would reduce overall spending by the federal government. But it does so minimally and largely adheres to levels set in a debt ceiling deal negotiated by President Biden and then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., last year. The announcement sparked immediate outrage among the hard-right House Freedom Caucus and confusion among other conservatives, who said they have yet to hear directly from Johnson about the deal, or how the conference will proceed to ensure the government is not partially shut down as soon as next week.
“If this is the best Republicans can do, there’s no hope of ever balancing our budget or securing the border,” Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., a member of the Freedom Caucus, said Tuesday on X, formerly known as Twitter.
When Johnson tries to sell the deal, he will need to avoid hemorrhaging more support from hardliners, as some in his conference worry that he is unable to land a conservative deal. Complicating matters for Johnson is the narrow majority he has to work with: Until Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., returns to Washington next month, Republicans can only lose two votes to pass anything without relying on Democrats.
But unlike members of the Freedom Caucus, a majority of House Republicans have remained mum on the deal. Several conservatives, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about internal conference dynamics, said many Republicans understand Johnson was dealt a difficult hand, especially in funding negotiations that have mired the conference in disagreement since they took the majority last year. Fiscal conservatives want to judge him based on how he handles negotiations, which many hope start imminently, on how to fund the government in 2025.
The hesitation to judge Johnson now, however, did not come without some disappointment about his leadership style. Johnson did not hold a conference call with members Sunday to outline details of the deal before it was publicly released, a move several members considered a slight or a missed opportunity by the speaker to line up surrogates to prop up his deal. Though the speaker’s office did circulate talking points, those who viewed them said the notes did not do enough to develop a coherent message, which Johnson will have to sell when Republicans meet for the first time Wednesday morning.
While 146 Republicans—a majority of the conference—already voted for the parameters of the compromise when it was included in the debt ceiling deal, roughly 70 voted against it, all but guaranteeing Johnson will have to rely on Democrats to fund the government. Though a deal was reached, leaders have to agree on how much funding each government agency is set to receive, further delaying appropriators’ ability to write compromise legislation and increasing the likelihood of a partial government shutdown on Jan. 19. If Congress is unable to move appropriation bills through both chambers by Feb. 2, a full government shutdown would take place.
In negotiations since assuming the speakership late last year, Johnson had pushed the Republican position that House and Senate Democrats adhere to the $1.59 trillion topline number for fiscal year 2024 that was agreed to in the debt ceiling agreement but ditch a $69 billion side deal that was included to adjust for inflation. Getting all Republicans to unite around that topline number was a year-long effort after hardliners pushed McCarthy—who in turn directed the House Appropriations Committee—to set spending caps to $1.41 trillion, which forced steep cuts that Republicans ultimately could not pass through their own ranks.
Once McCarthy was removed as speaker and Johnson, a member of the far-right wing of the party, was elected, fiscal hardliners relented on their top-line demand and supported capping spending at $1.59 trillion until September 2024. While many across the GOP conference had expected an agreement that went slightly above that topline, members of the Freedom Caucus balked when congressional leaders announced a deal that included the entirety of the spending side deal. Several made clear they will vote against appropriation bills set to those levels, forcing their passage to require Democratic votes.
“Republicans agreeing to spending levels $69 billion higher than last summer’s debt ceiling ‘deal,’ with no significant policy wins is nothing but another loss for America,” Freedom Caucus Chair Bob Good, R-Va., wrote on X. “At some point, having the House majority has to matter.”
How the Freedom Caucus responds through legislation could be made clear as soon as Tuesday, when members will begin meeting to discuss the weeks ahead. Freedom Caucus members have previously sunk votes on key agenda items as a signal to leadership of their displeasure.
Johnson tried to sell the deal in a letter to colleagues Sunday, noting he was able to notch conservative wins by clawing back a combined $16.1 billion in unspent funds for the coronavirus pandemic and the Internal Revenue Service—two issues whose funds House Republicans have demanded be used to pay for other government spending. But those concessions are not enough for many in the far right.
Several freshman Republicans who were on a call with the speaker last week expressed concern that Johnson had not articulated a coherent plan to avoid a partial shutdown next week or how quickly Congress could pass all 12 appropriation bills before the February deadline. Johnson has publicly stated that he would not consider passing another short-term bill extending current fiscal levels—like he and McCarthy did twice last year—but has said little else.
Many Republicans hope the conference will return to Washington with a willingness to govern and avoid bending to most far-right demands on spending that had delayed the appropriation process, only to have congressional leaders reach the same result established in May.
“I’m fine with it,” Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., said in response to Johnson’s agreement with Schumer. “I would have liked it earlier.”