Budget Battles Punted To Next Year

[ Posted Thursday, November 16th, 2023 – 17:01 UTC ]

Congress has now successfully punted their budget negotiations into the next calendar year. The most astonishing part of this fact is that they managed to do so two days before the deadline, which (these days) is actually pretty impressive. We didn't go down to the wire with midnight votes, and we didn't have to see the media go through one of their "The government is about to shut down!" frenzies. So that's progress, of a sort.

But the big fight still remains. And from all indications, it's going to be a doozy. I wouldn't even venture odds on the chances of Speaker Mike Johnson being able to hold his leadership position after the dust settles, in fact, since he faces a rather impossible situation with his own caucus. There may just be too many House GOP members who are absolutely divorced from the legislative realities in Washington for Johnson to survive.

Since we just punted the ball to mid-January and the beginning of February (in Johnson's gimmicky "two-step ladder"), it is worth taking a pause to survey where everything stands and what is likely to happen early next year.

The federal budget is divided into 12 different appropriations bills. The theoretical congressional budgeting process is for each house to pass all 12 of these individually, and then hold conferences with each other to hash out the differences. From these meetings, compromises are struck that can win majorities in both chambers. The compromise bills are voted on and sent to the president to sign. Or they just lump everything together into one giant "omnibus" bill, rather than keep the 12 bills separate. This is much more common, but it's one of the things the House GOP is fighting against.

In any case, in these bicameral conferences, the party that holds the White House always has the upper hand. While the majority leaders of each chamber have to come up with bills that can pass their chambers, the White House can threaten a veto of anything -- which would require a full two-thirds vote in both chambers to overcome. This, obviously, is a much higher bar. Which gives the president's party the upper hand.

In these conferences -- especially in a divided government (with the Republicans holding the House and the Democrats holding the Senate and the White House) -- both sides begin by announcing their red lines. "We will not vote for any bill that contains this," or: "...does not contain this," is the position they both start with. Often these red lines overlap and contradict each other. And the red lines have to be prioritized into which ones are really important to each party versus those that are just "would be nice to have" sorts of asks.

Then the wheeling and dealing begins. And whichever party is at a disadvantage usually sees something like 75-to-90 percent of their priorities wind up on the cutting room floor. A few bones are tossed to them by the party that holds more power, but these face-saving measures are usually the least offensive agenda items -- the things that could be begrudgingly accepted, but not the truly odious ideas from the other party. Then the compromise is passed, usually with a big bipartisan vote in both chambers, and sent to the president to sign.

By now, both chambers were supposed to have already passed their versions of the 12 appropriations bills, as starting bids for the negotiations. Neither one has. The House has managed to pass seven individual bills while the Senate passed three of them in one "minibus" bill. But the Senate has also voted all 12 of them out of committee with impressively bipartisan margins, which counts for a lot (since it shows bipartisan support, meaning compromises have already been successfully struck). The Senate will likely pass the remainder of their bills in a few other minibus packages.

The House GOP, however, is busy fighting amongst themselves over how Draconian to make each of their bills. Which is kind of ridiculous, since none of the hairs they are arguing about splitting are ever going to make it into any final bill that the Senate will agree to. This is where the delusional part comes into play.

Earlier this year, House Speaker (at the time) Kevin McCarthy agreed to a topline budget agreement with the Senate and Joe Biden. It was signed into law. It provided just the overall budget numbers for all the departments, without going into detail. These numbers were less than what Biden had asked for, but far greater than the drastic cuts the House GOP hardliners were demanding. To save his political skin (which worked, for a few months at least), McCarthy then immediately reneged on the deal. He announced that the numbers he had just agreed to were not final, but merely a ceiling -- that he could spend less than those amounts, but not more. This is not what he actually had agreed to at all, but it went over well with his hardliners.

Since then, the House GOP has been struggling to put together their appropriations bills. They are squabbling over many things: how Draconian the cuts should be to each department, petty shots at the Biden administration (such as stripping Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg's salary out of the budget), poison pill clauses on pet Republican issues such as abortion, and the process the bills use to get through the House. That last one is more important than it sounds, as the hardliners keep preventing the bills from even moving to the House floor, just to stick a thumb in their speaker's eye. This just happened again, in protest of their new speaker's willingness to punt the shutdown date to next year. They have five appropriations bills remaining. Four of them have had to be pulled recently because of all the squabbling (including the one that failed on procedural grounds yesterday). The fifth one is one of the most contentious of all, meaning its passage won't be easy either.

The plan was -- under both McCarthy and Johnson -- to pass ultraconservative budget-slashing appropriations bills and send them over to the Senate as their opening bargaining position for the negotiations. But they can't even agree on how Draconian the bills should be. The hardliners want the most drastic bills imaginable, but the "centrists" know that their own re-election chances may be doomed by having to vote to, for instance, make it illegal to send abortion pills through the mail. So House Republicans, with their razor-thin margin of control, can't get enough votes for anything.

The hardliners are truly delusional, it bears pointing out again. They firmly believe that they can pass their extreme budget and that they can then -- through sheer force of willpower -- make Senate Democrats and Joe Biden knuckle under and accept it all. This is, bluntly, never going to happen. It's an ultraconservative fantasy. But it's a fantasy that the hardliners have faith in. If their speaker just fights hard enough, then they will emerge victorious. Which, again, is pure balderdash.

What is going to happen instead is by mid-January perhaps all the appropriations bills will have been passed in some form or another. But the House bills are never going to be voted on in the Democratic Senate and the Senate bills are never going to get a vote in the GOP House. So they'll sit down and try to hash out a compromise.

This is the point where Johnson can either refuse to give an inch, or be reasonable. If he doesn't negotiate realistically, we will have a government shutdown. It may be a two-part shutdown, given his laddered schedule. But whether a partial or full shutdown happens or not, eventually some sort of deal is going to have to be struck. And Johnson is going to have to agree to give up all the poison pills and virtually all of the drastic budget cuts. The hardliner GOP agenda is going to mostly wind up on the cutting room floor. A few bones will be tossed to Johnson, in the form of GOP agenda items that Democrats can hold their noses and vote for without betraying their own party's principles too much. But these will be limited in scope.

There are all kinds of convoluted ways they could get to the end of this road, it's worth mentioning. But we'll have plenty of time to examine all of that in detail when we get closer to the deadline. The upshot -- no matter what the details turn out to be -- is that eventually Johnson's going to have to put a bill (or bills) on the floor of the House that the hardliners will simply not vote for. But he'll have plenty of Democratic votes to pass it, since it'll be a bill that can also pass the Senate (with a bipartisan majority) and be signed by President Biden.

Johnson will immediately be accused of treason to the Republican Party and called a traitor (or worse). It's hard to see how he survives this without someone from within his own ranks challenging his speakership. And unless he then cuts some sort of deal with the House Democrats to stay in power -- an option Kevin McCarthy absolutely refused to consider -- Johnson will likely be gone soon after, and we'll all go back to the clown show of watching the House Republicans try to decide who will lead them.

To me, this all seems rather crystal clear. I don't really see any other way out of the mess. The GOP hardliners are called "the Chaos Caucus" for a reason. They do not accept basic political reality. They are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that everyone else in D.C. will bend to their will if their leader just fights hard enough. But at this point they can't even make the members of their own party get on board, in their own House. They don't care, they still fervently believe in their own delusional image of their own power.

We can either have a government shutdown that lasts until next October (the start of the new fiscal year), or we can have a compromise budget pass Congress. Those are the only two options, really. And if a compromise budget is placed on the president's desk, Speaker Johnson is going to face the rage of his hardliners, and probably lose his leadership job. The only way that isn't going to happen is if the hardliners suddenly see the light of day and realize how unrealistic their fantasy of having full control of Washington truly is -- which doesn't exactly seem likely to happen.

Congress has successfully punted this fight until after the year-end holidays. Which means (of course) that little will get done until January, when the deadline begins to loom large. Then with the pressure of a shutdown forcing everyone to act, the budget battle will begin in earnest. Johnson swears he won't even consider punting the deadlines again, so this could be the final battle for this year's budget negotiations. And at this point, I just hope he can keep his job long enough to pass whatever compromise is struck and get it onto Biden's desk before he is deposed by the delusional hotheads from within his own party.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


No Comments yet on “Budget Battles Punted To Next Year”

Comments for this article are closed.