Senate GOP fears Speaker Johnson headed toward shutdown wreck

Senate GOP fears Speaker Johnson headed toward shutdown wreck

Senate Republicans are trying to wave their House GOP counterparts away from blundering into a partial government shutdown at week’s end, something that looks increasingly likely given Speaker Mike Johnson’s (R-La.) unstable grip on power over a narrow majority.

GOP senators warn a shutdown for any reason would be a political loser and imperil their prospects in November.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) delivered a stern message to his House GOP colleagues Monday afternoon, warning them that shutting down the government is not an option.

“Shutting down the government is harmful to the country. And it never produces positive outcomes — on policy or politics,” he warned on the Senate floor.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)

Greg Nash

Congressional leaders failed to release the text over the weekend for legislation to fund military construction and the departments of Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Energy, Transportation and Housing and Urban Affairs, setting the stage for a partial government shutdown after March 1.

Senate Republicans expressed frustrations Monday afternoon over the failure to reach an agreement, noting that the funding levels of the bill have already been worked out and that a standoff over controversial policy riders is gumming up the process.

McConnell warned that if lawmakers fail to meet Friday’s deadline, “the country would face needless disruptions” in those areas.

He added that funding the government “will require that everyone rows in the same direction: toward clean appropriations and away from poison pills.”

McConnell’s comments appeared directed at the Speaker and House conservatives who are insisting on adding controversial policy riders to the government funding package, according to Senate aides familiar with the negotiations.

The House Freedom Caucus last week submitted to Johnson a list of more than 20 policy riders they want to add to the annual spending bills, including a proposal to zero out Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’s salary, block the Pentagon’s ability to reimburse the travel costs of service members who obtain abortions and defund elements of the Biden administration’s climate agenda.

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Members of McConnell’s leadership team echoed his warning that stumbling into a government shutdown would boomerang on Republicans eight months before Election Day, which will decide control of the White House, Senate and House.

“Shutdowns, I say repeatedly, are always a bad idea. It doesn’t help anybody and it’s just a misery march,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the vice chair of the Senate GOP conference.

Polls show that voters tend to blame Republicans for government shutdowns, and Senate Republicans fear their party will suffer most of the political fallout if Congress fails to keep federal departments and agencies funded by Friday’s deadline.

Asked how much confidence Senate Republicans have in Johnson’s ability to avoid a shutdown, Capito said: “You’ll have to ask him that. I can’t figure them out over there.”

Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), McConnell’s top deputy, said he hopes a shutdown will be avoided but isn’t sure how events will play out in the House.

“I don’t know. I hope we don’t get there. I think these bills have been very thoroughly already amended in the Senate. If the House can figure out a way to process them, we can get this done by the end of the week, but that’s going to be probably in their court,” he said.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.)
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.)

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) addresses reporters after the weekly policy luncheon on Tuesday, October 24, 2023. (Greg Nash)

Thune’s remarks reflected broader views among GOP senators that avoiding a shutdown will be up to House Republicans, who their Senate counterparts say must figure out a way to back down from brinkmanship.

Johnson’s difficulty passing even routine bills through the lower chamber has opened the door for Democrats to argue that any shutdown would be driven by the Speaker’s lack of control over his own conference.

“Unfortunately our House Republican colleagues are still struggling to figure themselves out,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday afternoon. “So I ask all senators to keep their schedules flexible. Now Senate Democrats have been crystal clear. We want to avoid a government shutdown.

“But for that to happen, congressional leadership must resist the centrifugal pull of extremism emanating from the hard right,” he warned.

Lawmakers face another deadline to fund the rest of government on March 8 and don’t appear to be close to reaching a deal on funding the Pentagon and the departments of Homeland Security, Labor and Health and Human Services — which traditionally draw more controversy.

Emerging from a meeting Monday afternoon, other members of the Senate leadership team said they don’t know how the Speaker plans to meet the funding deadline.

“Looks very uncertain right now. I think we’re heading toward a [continuing resolution] of some uncertain duration, but that’s all I can tell you,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

He said he assumed any stopgap spending measure would cover the federal departments and agencies that will run out of money on Friday, but he wondered: “What are we going to do the week following?”

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Steve Daines (Mont.), who is tasked with winning back the Senate majority, expressed hope Monday that a shutdown could be avoided.

“I hope we can find a way through it and avoid it if we can,” he said when asked how a shutdown might play with voters leading up to Election Day.

Republican senators fear that Johnson won’t risk a fight with House conservatives by advancing funding legislation that would have a chance of passing the Democrat-controlled Senate and getting President Biden’s signature.

A small handful of conservatives could force a snap leadership election by advancing a motion to vacate the Speaker’s chair, a tactic they used to topple former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in October after he advanced a short-term government funding measure without the steep spending cuts they wanted.

One Republican senator voiced “concern” that Johnson is playing his cards close to the vest, taking counsel mainly from a small circle of advisers instead of reaching out more broadly for advice from more senior colleagues.

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