Image for Jockeying Continues on Federal Spending Levels
House Republicans find new leverage for deep spending cuts thanks to overlooked provision in debt ceiling deal negotiated by ousted Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

House Republicans Find Leverage in Provision Pushed by Departing McCarthy

Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap is famous for its unexpected final plot twist. Deposed Speaker Kevin McCarthy may take joy in his own curtain-closing plot twist that House Republicans are using to leverage deep federal spending cuts.

Unsurprisingly, House Republicans and Senate Democrats can’t see eye-to-eye on how to spend or not spend money in federal Fiscal Year 2024. After three stopgap funding measures, there is still no consensus on Capitol Hill of how much to appropriate for federal agencies in the fiscal year that began September 1.

House Republicans insist on deeper non-defense spending cuts than called for in the debt ceiling agreement that McCarthy negotiated, Congress approved and President Biden signed earlier this year. Senate Democrats and Republicans have agreed on FY 2024 appropriations that fall within the debt ceiling spending parameters.

However, Speaker Mike Johnson, under pressure from the right-wing Freedom Caucus, is demanding $73.3 million in non-defense spending cuts, far more than the debt ceiling deal requires. Johnson’s leverage is part of the debt ceiling deal that says if Congress resorts to continuing resolutions for all of FY 2024, there must be an automatic $73.3 million reduction in non-defense spending, the amount Johnson is demanding in negotiations.

Not budging on spending levels has emerged as a Johnson strategy, not just a Republican obstruction.

McCarthy’s Mousetrap Plot Twist
The irony is that McCarthy, who insisted on this automatic spending cut provision, was pilloried by his GOP colleagues for caving to Democrats on the debt deal and subsequently unseated after he bargained with Democrats to avoid a government shutdown over Freedom Caucus objections. Apparently no one noticed the trap he laid for unsuspecting Democrats.

McCarthy will resign from Congress at the end of the year, further narrowing the slim House Republican majority after the expulsion this week of Republican Congressman George Santos for a laundry list of alleged ethical violations.

A McCarthy associate claims the mid-term retirement is the former speaker’s one-finger salute to his Republican detractors. Maybe it’s just McCarthy’s way of showing he was more clever than everyone thought.

Johnson’s ploy has apparently emboldened Senate Republicans who rejected legislation to provide aid to Ukraine and Israel without language they sought on border security. Democrats and Republicans have agreed to do something but can’t agree on what. The Biden administration has warned previously approved Ukrainian aid will be depleted by the end of December. House Republicans approved a bill providing aid only to Israel and coupled it with an equivalent spending cut for the Internal Revenue Service.

House Republicans insist on deep spending cuts.
Senate appropriators call the cuts devastating.

While Johnson is placating the Freedom Caucus, he also appears willing to make a deal with Senate appropriators. Washington Senator Patty Murray, who chairs Senate Appropriations, and ranking Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine have worked in lockstep on fashioning spending bills that fit under the debt limit deal spending limits.

Automatic Cuts ‘Deeply Dangerous’
Murray called Johnson’s CR threat “deeply dangerous” by “locking in outdated spending plans and devastating across-the-board cuts with no rhyme or reason and completely lock Congress out of any kind of thoughtful decision-making process for our nation’s future.”.

Murray says Johnson is seeking a “devastating” 9 percent cut in non-defense spending. “We would essentially be ceding our ground to our competitors around the globe on virtually everything we need to do get our economy up and running.”

Collins said Johnson’s proposed spending cuts “would fail to provide the resources needed to protect our nation.”

Murray and Collins also have expressed frustration over Johnson dragging out negotiations. Murray said, “We have to get down to the sticky nitty-gritty details, the differences between the House and the Senate, and all the time and work that goes into it. It takes time and work.” She added, “We needed agreement on the topline spending amounts yesterday.”

Johnson is reportedly consulting with his GOP caucus on compromising with the Senate on spending levels. Given the nature of his leverage, Johnson may not be in a hurry to compromise and might choose to strike a deal on supplemental aid to Ukraine and Israel.

After he retires, McCarthy may be relaxing on a California beach soaking up the sun and smiling at the tangle he left behind.

More Chaos Looms
Johnson may be winning kudos from the Freedom Caucus on spending cuts, he is facing caucus ire over negotiations on the Defense Authorization bill. House and Senate conferees agreed to drop most of the culture war provisions relating to abortion, diversity training and transgender policies.

Defense bills usually glide through Congress, but now Johnson may have to rely on Democrats to get the compromise legislation through the House, further angering Freedom Caucus members who are still smarting over his bipartisan stopgap spending measures. Right-wing discontent likely will stiffen Johnson’s resolve to insist on deeper spending cuts.