House right flank rebels after speaker crafts spending deal

House right flank rebels after speaker crafts spending deal

By Lauren Fox | CNN

Speaker Mike Johnson is finding himself once again walking a tightrope between political reality and what can satisfy his right flank, as conservative hardliners staged a rebellion on the House floor Wednesday afternoon.

More than a dozen House Republicans joined all Democrats in sinking a procedural rule vote on the House floor Wednesday afternoon, the second rule vote defeat in Johnson’s 11-week tenure, and coming hours after a heated private GOP conference meeting where Johnson sought to discuss a deal he struck with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on government funding.

It’s a challenge Johnson will face over and over again in the months ahead, but comes at a time when the speaker has even fewer votes than his predecessor and as Johnson has limited options on a spending deal that will need to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate and be signed by a Democratic president.

“We’re in a divided government. Anyone who thinks we are going to get more out of this deal is lying and they’re kidding themselves,” Rep. Mike Lawler, a New York Republican, said. “The speaker did the best he could under the circumstances and frankly our hand was weakened by the eight nitwits who removed Speaker McCarthy.”

The rule – which would have governed debate on two resolutions of disapproval for Biden administration rules – failed by a vote of 203-216, with 13 GOP members joining Democrats in killing it. One of the 13 was Rep. Blake Moore of Utah, who changed his vote to “nay” on behalf of GOP leadership in order to make a request to bring the vote up again at a later date.

The rest of the Republican nay votes comprised of most of the members of the House Freedom Caucus, who have railed against Johnson for the topline spending agreement he made with Senate Democrats that largely mirrored the same deal cut by former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and ultimately led to his ouster.

Rep. Bob Good, a Virginia Republican and leader of the House Freedom Caucus, warned hardliners are demanding additional spending cuts and a border security deal.

“We’re making a statement that what the deal as has been announced that doesn’t secure the border and that doesn’t cut our spending and it’s going to be passed, apparently under suspension of the rules with predominantly Democrat votes is unacceptable,” Good said.

Tense conference meeting

Johnson also faced backlash during a private conference meeting Wednesday morning, the first opportunity the full conference had to discuss spending since Johnson announced a deal Sunday that would fund the government at $1.59 trillion, but would also reprogram roughly $70 billion to fund non-defense programs.

“We need more communication in our conference. Mike Johnson doesn’t work for (Senate Majority Leader) Chuck Schumer and the White House,” GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia said. “He needs to work with our conference on deals that he’s making.”

During the meeting, Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican and chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee, engaged in a back and forth with the speaker about why he’d agreed to allowing a so-called “side deal” and why he hadn’t insisted that $1.59 trillion was the ceiling. Jordan also insisted that a one-year continuing resolution would have put them in a better position because of automatic cuts that would have kicked in to save money.

Another Ohio Republican, Rep. Warren Davidson, walked out of the meeting early, decrying the “drivel” coming from leadership.

Asked if Johnson should face an ouster for his agreement on spending, Davidson quipped, “He should have never been hired.”

Following Wednesday’s failed vote, Johnson said he is confident he will remain in his role despite conservative outrage.

“I don’t think I’m in any jeopardy of being ‘vacated.’ It’s not something I walk around and think about,” Johnson said on Fox News.

Johnson insisted Republicans cannot get everything they want in negotiations given their slim majority.

“We have a 2-vote margin, only in one chamber,” he said.

Talk of a short-term stopgap

While Johnson and Schumer struck a deal over the weekend on the topline spending number, there is still significant work to do to ensure Congress can pass spending agreements to fund agencies that run out of money on January 19.

Some conservatives are pushing for more policy riders that Democrats have warned could sour the deal, and negotiators still have to hash out where the funding should go and write the bills. That process, Senate leaders warned Tuesday, could take more time than lawmakers have, raising the prospect that a short-term spending deal may be needed to fill in the gap.

“It’s gonna take a while to process,” Republican Whip John Thune warned Tuesday when he suggested a short-term spending bill until March.

On Wednesday, the South Dakota senator expressed frustration about the situation in the House, warning that at some point the chamber is going to have to govern.

“They are going to have to figure out how to get their work done over there because at some point, we’re going to have to fund the government,” Thune said. “That starts with the House being able to conduct business and, obviously, the rules committee and getting a rule passed on the floor is absolutely essential to that.”

Appropriators have said they can work more quickly than a March deadline, but striking agreements, writing the legislation, getting a budget score and moving the bills through the House and the Senate in just a handful of legislative days may not be possible.

“You are running the risk of making mistakes here in federal law,” Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democratic appropriator from Hawaii, said about moving too quickly.

Despite saying in the past, he didn’t want any more short-term spending bills, Johnson didn’t rule one out Wednesday, warning it was important to complete the spending process.

“I’m not ruling out anything, committing to anything, other than getting these appropriations done,” he told reporters Wednesday following the heated conference meeting on the topic.

Adding to the complications for the speaker is calls from his right flank to force the issue of border security as part of the spending showdown. That issue is already imperiling the future of a supplemental bill to provide security assistance to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. And Senate and House appropriators have warned against injecting the thorny political issue into the spending fight for fear it could erupt a shutdown.

“All of a sudden in an effort to just criticize the speaker, (hardliners) are trying to link something that none of us ever talked about linking to border security,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican appropriator from Florida, told CNN. “Border security is essential. The best leverage that we have I think is with the supplemental.”

While many conservatives were frustrated with Johnson, many stopped short of saying he shouldn’t be in the job. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who led the effort to oust McCarthy, last fall, said he that Johnson’s deal was “insufficient,” but when pressed if he should remain in the speakership, Gaetz said, “I am not sure that if we replaced Mike Johnson, we wouldn’t end up with someone way, way more liberal.”

“I don’t think the motion to vacate is the right tool now,” Gaetz said. “That was the right tool while McCarthy was dealing off the bottom of the deck, but Johnson is at least being honest.”

Asked if he was confident in Johnson, Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, just said, “It’s a tough job.”

CNN’s Haley Talbot and Kristin Wilson contributed to this report.