© 2024 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why it's been so difficult for Speaker Johnson, in particular, to cut a spending deal


March 1 is just hours away, and it's the first of two deadlines for a partial government shutdown. The second is March 8. Lawmakers agreed on those dates in January, when the country was - sound familiar? - on the verge of another government shutdown. Since then, conditions for making a political deal have only gotten worse. The Republican majority in the House has shrunk to just two votes, and the path forward depends on Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, Republican of Louisiana. NPR congressional reporter Eric McDaniel has been following these talks, and he's here in the studio. Hey, Eric.


SHAPIRO: How have the negotiations gone so far?

MCDANIEL: I mean, I think we could almost talk at this point as though they do have a short-term plan together on the funding bills...

SHAPIRO: Well, that's good.

MCDANIEL: ...At least for the agencies that are going to run out on Friday. I think we'll see something to that effect soon enough - right? - because that's how these deadlines go. They still need to pass that hypothetical deal. And, of course, I'm not a fortune-teller, but I also don't expect a government shutdown on Friday, right? They'll cobble votes together and keep working on things for another short-term extension or maybe even these, quote-unquote, "full-year fiscal bills," even though that would be to just September of this year. Because I don't want to miss the forest through the trees here, right? They were supposed to pass these full-year spending authorizations for the federal government in September. You and I are sitting here talking. It's February 28. So in that way - right? - negotiations over the spending bills aren't going great.

SHAPIRO: No, but I do appreciate your putting a positive spin on this. Remind us of what the fiscal parameters are that Speaker Johnson has to consider here.

MCDANIEL: So right now, the U.S. government is still operating under budget choices that were made by a whole nother Congress - right? - just after the 2022 midterm elections when Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, was still in charge. The new Congress hadn't taken office. She was serving as speaker of the House. The current Congress has been extending that funding in small increments ever since. Johnson says he wants to stop these so-called stopgap measures and pass the full-year bills, but it's been impossible so far to get House Republicans and the rest of Congress on the same page about what should be in those bills. And that's kind of where we are now.

And just to put a fine point on it, funding the government is a core job of Congress. It's the power of the purse. And there are some ways they haven't really done it in the way it's designed to work since 1996, 1997. And I think there are reasons now - and we can get more into this - that the problem is worse than it's ever been.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Well, let's get into one of those reasons. Johnson, who has not spent long as speaker of the House, has spent most of that time trying to manage the far-right of his own party, who generally don't support any kind of spending deal that Democrats could agree to. How has that dynamic created this moment we're in now?

MCDANIEL: It's really important. There's no way around it. And while Johnson might be trying to manage them, he's really not tried to appease them so far, right? In fact, he's sort of gone around them. He's now pushed through two short-term funding extensions against their wishes, despite promising when he was running for speaker that he was done with short-term bills. But we could see another pass this week. He's advanced a bipartisan tax deal. For the most part, they did not back that. And in this context, deferring to his far-right members would be insisting that the big - insisting on big conservative policy riders on guns or abortion that President Biden would never sign and maybe letting the government shut down. And there's just no sign that he's inclined to let that happen.

SHAPIRO: So he's not insisting on those conservative priorities right now.

MCDANIEL: I mean, I suspect any conservative wins we do see in a plan will be much smaller than the hard-liners want to see. These big ones on abortion or guns, say, are described as poison pills by Democrats - things they just can't stomach. And because Biden is in charge of the White House and Democrats control the Senate, they're not going to go through.

But the issue for Johnson is that these anti-compromise folks make up somewhere between a third and a half of his majority, depending on what the exact issue is, and they have some fundamentally different incentives. Part of Johnson's job as speaker is to govern and make Republicans look electable and responsible and competent. But the anti-compromise folks represent districts that have been drawn to be so safe that compromise could doom them when they have to compete in the party primaries that are so rigorously partisan because of, you know, the way these districts are.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. So if you look at this through the eyes of those hardliners, how are the considerations different?

MCDANIEL: Well, their job is to hold the line and excite their very engaged Republican primary voters. Remember, most of Congress is made up of these safe seats, where the party primary is the vote that matters - not the general election. There are just 20 or 30 seats that are totally competitive or designed to be competitive in the general election between the parties. These hard-liners are just responding to the incentives that they have.

SHAPIRO: Lots of House speakers have had to navigate a shutdown fight, but none of them have had as little experience as Johnson. Do you see that having an impact on his ability to deliver a deal?

MCDANIEL: Weirdly, I don't. Like, I don't think this is entirely an experience problem. I don't think his leadership skills really have much to do with the core issue here, right? He's just got a plain-old problem. There's a philosophical divide that - I'm not sure who can bridge it. We might see these deals come together eventually, but we're already late, right? And I also just wouldn't say - to your point, though, he's new, right? He's not a master tactician in the same way we've seen from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

SHAPIRO: Outgoing Senate Republican leader.

MCDANIEL: Yes, now.

SHAPIRO: Although, in his short time as speaker, Johnson has had some pretty public failures. Like, the first impeachment vote against Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas failed. The Israel solo aid package didn't go through. Are those things affecting his ability to bring members along?

MCDANIEL: Right. I mean, those bills failed back-to-back on the same night - right? - and the second, the Mayorkas impeachment, because of Republican opposition. It wasn't a shining moment for the new speaker, and he's been a little wishy-washy when coming to final decisions. But ultimately, he was, of course, able to impeach DHS Secretary Mayorkas the following week.

SHAPIRO: You know, one of Johnson's predecessors was Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California, and she avoided a shutdown in 2022 by keeping her party together even though there were intense dissents and fractures within that party. Does Johnson have the same level of credibility as Pelosi? Can he hold his party together?

MCDANIEL: I mean, there is no question, right? Pelosi was known for her ability to keep the whole party together on tough votes. That's absolutely true. We saw it way back during the Affordable Care Act fight. But partisan Democrats also have a different base to win over, right? Intransigence isn't the same winning message all the time that it is for some of these partisan Republicans.

I think the predecessor who actually has the most to teach us about this moment is Kevin McCarthy, right? He's Johnson's immediate predecessor, Republican from California. And the former speaker was the one who essentially changed the rules last January to empower this anti-compromise flank in a way that they weren't before. They can now block key procedural steps because of their positions on the Rules Committee and even fire the speaker if they disagree with just a couple of members. And in this tiny majority, that's a big deal. That came home to roost for McCarthy when they ousted him in the fall.

SHAPIRO: OK. We started by talking about how little time is left, and you said you're not a fortune-teller. I want to end by asking if you're a better - what do you think's going to happen?

MCDANIEL: I am a better, and here's the bet I'll take. I think they're going to move the deadlines a couple weeks to get a broader deal through. That's my guess. There are two days to pass something and avoid a partial shutdown. That's not a lot of time, but it's also not impossible. But I want to say, again, even if they get an agreement, even on funding for the rest of the fiscal year, this isn't a sign that things are working well. The U.S. is the richest country in the world. It's styled by its leaders as a shining city on a hill. And here we are, where the whole federal government can't long-term plan because its agencies don't know how much money they'll have. This is a structural problem that got us here, and I just don't see that going anywhere.

SHAPIRO: NPR congressional reporter Eric McDaniel. Thanks.

MCDANIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric McDaniel
Eric McDaniel edits the NPR Politics Podcast. He joined the program ahead of its 2019 relaunch as a daily podcast.