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Johnson’s first moves show he’ll stick with House GOP hard-liners

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Johnson’s first moves show he’ll stick with House GOP hard-liners

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New House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) took office pledging to unify his fractious GOP conference and work with House Democrats on issues including government spending, the national debt and Israel’s defense against Hamas terrorist attacks.

His first full week in office was marked instead by measures that drove a wedge not just between liberals and conservatives — but also between the House and Senate. And with less than two weeks before a potential government shutdown, Johnson’s early moves foreshadow a difficult path to bipartisan agreement.

Johnson pitched, and the GOP-controlled House passed, legislation that conditioned $14.3 billion in aid to Israel on cuts to the IRS’s ability to audit corporations and high-income earners. Nonpartisan analysts say the provision made the bill more costly, rather than pay for it, even though the ostensible idea behind the cuts was to save money. The Senate and White House immediately rejected the measure.

To avoid a government shutdown, Johnson floated a “laddered” plan to fund individual agencies and federal programs with separate rolling deadlines, setting up frequent showdowns until larger spending bills become law. And he told Senate GOP counterparts that the House would only consider aid for Ukraine’s war against Russia if it were paired with immigration policy changes.

That opening legislative salvo is indicative, lawmakers and insiders say, of the historic weakness Johnson brings to the gavel. Johnson was Republicans’ fourth choice to replace Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who was booted from the speakership in October after passing bipartisan legislation to avert a government shutdown and extend spending laws until this month. The new speaker has never chaired a congressional committee and is a lackluster political fundraiser. He’s earned a reputation as a fiscal policy wonk, yet has spent much of his congressional career focused on social issues, especially limiting abortion access and LBGTQ+ rights.

His first spending proposals have seen him seeking leverage for negotiations with the Democratic Senate and Biden administration. Conservatives have cheered the approach, seeing Johnson’s hard-line tactics as a way to move the starting point for policy discussions further to the right.

For House Speaker Mike Johnson, a pressing task: Keep the government open

The strategy, said one senior GOP aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe lawmakers’ private conversations, is analogous to Johnson starting a drive toward the end zone with the ball at the 50 yard line instead of at his own 25.

But, others say, Johnson risks boxing himself into the same predicament his predecessor faced — by allowing his hard-right flank to dictate the starting point of negotiations without leaving room to make concessions.

“He’s the most inexperienced speaker we’ve had, and I think it shows,” Rep. David Trone (D-Md.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, told The Washington Post on Friday. “I think the leverage for negotiations has largely left the building.”

Aides to Johnson did not reply to a request for comment. The speaker told reporters last week that the nation faced daunting challenges.

“I genuinely believe that the future of our republic may be decided in the next 12 to 14 months. This is a heavy time,” he said. “We go into that very sober-minded. The first week in the job has been a whirlwind.”

How Johnson handles the fiscal fights through the end of the year could define his speakership. The government will shut down on Nov. 18 without a bipartisan spending deal. Across-the-board cuts to federal programs will kick in at the end of April if Congress does not pass longer-term spending bills by the end of the year. Ukraine desperately needs funding to continue its defense against Russian invasion. Israel needs munitions to resupply its Iron Dome defense system and support its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Humanitarian crises rage in theaters around the world. All require significant sums of federal spending.

“He doesn’t have the experience, and he’s a big question mark. It’s funny when all the appropriators say they don’t know who this guy is,” said one person briefed on government funding negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe Johnson’s early tenure. “It’s going to be trial by fire, and he has to make battlefield decisions. The honeymoon is going to be over in the next couple weeks when they actually have to make tough decisions.”

The House GOP’s Israel strategy that played out this week emerged following a brainstorming session at the Heritage Foundation, a prominent conservative policy think tank.

Staff and advisers for senior GOP leadership gathered at the group’s offices on Monday to brainstorm how Johnson should propose to pay for the Israel aid, according to two people with knowledge of the meeting. At one point, one person in the room suggested a two-year extension of customs fees to raise billions of dollars to offset the cost of the aid, the people said. Repealing some of President Biden’s clean energy tax credits to pay for assistance was also on the table.

But GOP leadership quickly shot down those ideas, fearing the custom fees were likely to be perceived as a tax increase. Even cuts to the clean energy credits would represent a tax hike on businesses. Instead, GOP officials coalesced around repealing part of Biden’s $80 billion expansion to the IRS, a policy they say Democrats have already showed they were willing to sacrifice in pursuit of more pressing goals. President Biden and Senate Democrats agreed to take $20 billion from the total in a June deal to suspend the federal debt ceiling.

A spokeswoman for the think tank did not return a request for comment.

“The new speaker told conservative leadership, ‘This is the one we’re going to go with,’” one person briefed on internal discussions said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity because the Heritage meeting was private. “It was very much Johnson’s call.”

But the IRS cuts would not pay for the Israel aid at all — they would make it more costly, by reducing the tax agency’s ability to audit high-income earners and tax evaders. It would cost the government $26.8 billion in lost tax revenue, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected.

House passes $14 billion in Israel aid with costly cuts to IRS

Republican lawmakers and aides have admitted that the IRS cuts were, as many of them have described, “the lowest hanging fruit” that they could describe as a cut to federal spending and unite the conference in passing the Israel funding.

The strategy enraged Democrats, who generally saw support for Israel as a nonpartisan issue before the vote. Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.) voted for the bill, citing his Jewish heritage and long-standing U.S. strategic support for Israel, but said Johnson’s gambit set a dangerous model for future emergency funding requests, which Congress typically has not offset with budget cuts.

“It sets a horrible precedent not just from a national security perspective, but the next Superstorm Sandy or Hurricane Harvey or next Hurricane Ian or fire in California or floods — now every time there needs to be an emergency supplemental, they’re going to look to cut,” he told The Post.

The GOP’s narrow House majority — they can only lose four votes — has forced their ideological factions to debate the contours of every bill sent to the Senate this year. Republicans have largely agreed that they should pass the most conservative legislation possible, hoping that negotiations between the two chambers of Congress and the White House would eventually result in a watered-down, but still conservative, measure that ends up with the president’s signature.

More pragmatic Republicans began the year pushing for legislation that might pass a Democratic Senate, but gave up that fight as they realized those bills could never pass the House. They have opted to support more conservative versions for the sake of party unity, and many moderate Republicans have privately admitted they will probably vote for the remaining — and highly controversial — fiscal year 2024 appropriations bills since they know none of them will become law in their current form. Broadly, the House is proposing to spend far less money, especially on domestic programs, than the Senate — or than McCarthy and Biden agreed to spend in the debt ceiling talks.

Several Republicans worry that now that they’ve used the IRS gambit for the Israel aid, they’ll need to find another target for future cuts. Biden and Senate leaders in both parties are still calling for supplemental funding for Ukraine and to counter Chinese aggression in the Pacific. And on the domestic front, appropriators anticipate needing another emergency bill for natural disaster relief.

Johnson formally introduced himself to the Senate GOP during their lunch Wednesday, where Republicans in the upper chamber said they were “receptive” to his message, but made clear there was plenty of work to get done in a short time.

“We’re hoping to work with him, and to get these bills moving and to govern,” Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) said.

Johnson told skeptics that he no longer represented just his western Louisiana district and instead stood for all GOP viewpoints across the country, according to senators in the room.

He most pointedly appeared to soften his stance on support for Ukraine. He’d previously been a skeptic of sending additional aid to the war-torn nation, but acknowledged that a large majority of Senate Republicans still support more funding, as do a significant number of House Republicans. But Johnson also stated repeatedly that the House would consider Ukraine aid independently of other national security funding requests, aside from immigration policy changes — violating his own barely week-old commitment to single-subject bills.

A bipartisan group, led by Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), has begun assembling a potential immigration policy compromise that could accompany a Ukraine bill. It would include new restrictions on asylum claims and changes to parole requirements for individuals apprehended while unlawfully crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Such a deal, those close to the process say, is still a long way off; immigration is a sharply controversial issue, and compromises being discussed in closed-door talks are likely to inflame voters in both parties’ political bases.

Yet many conservatives who believe that the Senate looks down on House proposals dismissed the idea and instead suggested that the Senate pass the House GOP’s border security bill.

“They are negotiating against themselves already. We passed H.R. 2,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) said, referencing the hard-line border bill he helped shape. “Start with H.R. 2, then come talk to us.”

“I think personally they should bring their members over here to HC5 [the House GOP meeting room],” Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) added, “to talk about what they’re willing to work on and what they can get through and understand what we’re not willing to work on and get through.”

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