Image for Thanksgiving Feast Is Over, House Chaos Remains
Speaker Mike Johnson enlisted House Democrats to avoid a government shutdown. Now Thanksgiving is over and Johnson faces the same House Republican gridlock as before.

House Speaker Faces Rubix Cube Challenge to Win Spending Bill Approval

Thanksgiving is over but congressional dysfunction remains like a turkey thigh bone left on the dinner platter uneaten and untouched. A divided Congress and a split House GOP caucus return to the Capitol facing the same dilemma as when they left – who is going to eat that spending bill thigh bone?

The laddered continuing resolutions approved by bipartisan majorities before the holiday break provide a few more weeks to resolve how to pass 12 appropriations and a supplemental request for aid to Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan and border crossing enforcement.

However, the conservative Freedom Caucus has demonstrated its ability to block GOP spending bills on the House floor. Caucus members insist on deeper spending cuts and a variety of culture war provisions, which Republican moderates and most House Democrats don’t support and would have zero chance of moving through the Democratically controlled Senate.

The hardest core Freedom Caucus members are willing, if not eager, to shut down the federal government to make their point.

The expiration dates of the two latest stopgap spending measures in January and February will introduce another chaotic element into the mix – the first presidential primary elections in Iowa and New Hampshire. House Speaker Mike Johnson’s pre-Thanksgiving visit to Mar-a-Lago illustrated the influence Donald Trump’s views will have on the MAGA-wing of the House Republican caucus, possibly complicating an already confounding dilemma.

The 2024 House elections add to the chaos. So far, 34 House members have opted against seeking re-election. Twelve are running for Senate seats, two for governorships, two for state attorneys general and one for mayor. Eighteen are just quitting, many of whom, like retiring Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer, cite dysfunction in the House as a reason for leaving.

For Johnson to remain speaker, Republicans need to retain at least a narrow House majority. The existing majority is about ready to shrink with the expected expulsion this week of New York Congressman George Santos for a litany of campaign lies and misdeeds.

More Than the Freedom Caucus
As critical as the Freedom Caucus is to Johnson’s speakership, the dozen or so Republicans representing districts that Biden carried in the 2020 election are equally important to maintain a GOP majority.

The challenge for Johnson, as well as for moderate Republicans, Democrats and President Biden, is how to navigate an intentionally blockaded stream by the Freedom Caucus. The best shot Johnson has of keeping his newly won job is to find a way to get his entire Republican caucus on board with appropriations measures, much like he did in combining aid to Israel with a comparable reduction in the Internal Revenue Service budget.

To achieve that would require a lot of inventive legislative maneuvering and more federal budget targets. Wiggle room and time are something Johnson doesn’t have.

Assuming Johnson manages to pry the appropriations bills out of the House, they will almost certainly wind up in House-Senate conference committees. The deep spending cuts will be reduced or maybe erased and culture war provisions mostly will be axed, leaving Johnson with another sales job when the compromise spending bills return for House floor votes.

In all likelihood, the Israel aid-IRS cut measure will come back to the House from the Senate as a bill providing aid to Ukraine and Israel, as well as beefed up funding for border control, which projects as a political win for Biden.

Johnson and Trump Campaign Rallies
Johnson will have to persuade his fellow MAGA House mates as Trump on the campaign trail champions chaos at his MAGA political rallies. The former president has shown indictments and chaos are valuable political fundraising tools and rally cries for him, but may not be so politically helpful for Republicans to hold on to their House majority.

Republicans appear to already have an uphill battle to keep control. Court-ordered congressional redistricting in several Southern states may result in additional Democrats in their delegations. Recent state elections in red-leaning states have shown support maintaining the right of reproductive choice, which runs counter to anti-abortion Republican positioning.

The opposition of many Freedom Caucus members to continuing aid to Ukraine doesn’t square with public opinion in support of such aid. News coverage of Russian drones trying to damage energy generation as winter months approach will likely sustain that support.

What Johnson Originally Promised
When campaigning in the House caucus for the speakership, Johnson pledged to “pursue our conservative agenda”.

In his letter to fellow Republicans, Johnson said, “We all understand that our next speaker must be prepared to negotiate from a position of strength with the Democrat-controlled Senate and White House. The only way to secure that position is for the House to have passed all 12 of the appropriations measures. I am confident we can work together to accomplish that objective quickly, in a manner that delivers on our principled commitments to rein in wasteful spending and put our country back on a path to fiscal responsibility. It will be challenging work, but we can and will do it.”

Johnson laid out what he admitted was an “ambitious schedule” to move all 12 appropriations before the Thanksgiving break. So far the House has barely approved five of the 12 ­– Defense, Military Construction-Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, Interior-Environment and Energy-Water. The Senate has all 12 poised to head to the floor with bipartisan support and spending set at agreed upon levels in the House-Senate debt ceiling deal.

Newton’s law says when a toy car hits the wall, the wall pushes back. Speaker Johnson’s problem is getting his toy car to the wall.

The stage is set for a series of House-Senate conference committees where Newton’s law will be in play – when you push on a wall, the wall pushes back. The political question in the next several weeks will be what happens when a toy car hits a wall. Meanwhile, Johnson’s more immediate problem is how to get his toy car to the wall.