Speaker Johnson Versus The Chaos Caucus

[ Posted Thursday, January 11th, 2024 – 16:11 UTC ]

The speaker may have changed, but the underlying dynamics of the Republican-led House have not. Kevin McCarthy was ousted -- the first House speaker in American history to lose his job this way -- because he had to work within the reality that having a slim GOP majority in the House simply did not mean that the hardliners in his caucus got to dictate terms to everyone else in Washington. The Democrats hold the Senate and the White House, and they're never going to knuckle under to the MAGA hardliners and just give them everything they want. Now Mike Johnson is in charge and is facing exactly the same demands from exactly the same members of the GOP's "Chaos Caucus," who still refuse to admit any reality outside of their own warped view of how Washington should work. And Johnson may wind up facing the same fate as McCarthy before all of the dust settles.

The arguments all revolve around the federal budget. The budget was theoretically supposed to have been in place by the first of October, after the House and Senate passed the dozen appropriations bills to fund all the various departments of the federal government. McCarthy promised that this year was going to be different -- instead of doing all the work at the last minute and creating a gigantic "omnibus" bill that mashed all the appropriations bills together, he was going to produce a budget using "regular order" -- all 12 bills would pass the House, pass the Senate, and be signed individually into law by the president. On time.

That, obviously, didn't happen. Not even close. The House has managed to pass about half of their appropriations bills, but their versions of these bills are absolutely unacceptable to both Senate Democrats and President Joe Biden. They are not going to become law, period.

So McCarthy struck a deal with the Democrats to keep the government open. And then he ushered through a continuing resolution (or "C.R.") that put federal spending on autopilot until a final budget deal could be passed. This is what led to him being booted from the speakership.

Johnson was faced with a new deadline almost immediately after becoming speaker himself (a process that wasted almost the entire month of October in the House), and he likewise punted with another C.R. The hardliners gave him the benefit of the doubt, since he was so new to the job and "had to play the hand he was dealt." But it was a one-time Mulligan, they warned.

Johnson's C.R. pushed the deadline to the middle of January and the beginning of February (this was a gimmick that was somehow supposed to change the underlying dynamic of the discussions, but obviously hasn't). The first of these deadlines is fast approaching. And Congress is not going to be able to meet it.

Johnson, last weekend, announced he had agreed to the topline numbers for the budget with the Senate Democrats, but what he agreed to was exactly the same deal that McCarthy had agreed to earlier. The massive budget cuts the GOP hardliners have been demanding were rejected. Johnson knows he is going to have to get Democratic support in the House to pass anything, so he is essentially throwing the Chaos Caucus hardliners under the bus.

They aren't exactly happy about this, and they are lashing out in various ways. They have ground things to a halt on the House floor, denying their own speaker the ability to bring bills up for a vote. Some are darkly warning of another "motion to vacate the chair," and as Johnson has been pointing out, the Republicans now have the slimmest majority in the House in all of American history -- so all it would take is perhaps two GOP members voting against him to boot him out. That's a tough tightrope for Johnson to walk, obviously.

Exacerbating this dilemma for Johnson is the fact that they're not going to be done on time. Even with a deal in place for the topline numbers, the legislators still need to fill in the details for each of the appropriations bills. This process (like everything) takes longer in the Senate. So the Senate is already teeing up a new C.R. to extend the deadline. But Johnson has sworn not to pass another temporary C.R. at all. So he is going to have to break this promise in order to get a budget passed. Which is also enraging the hardliners and hotheads in his caucus.

The Chaos Caucus, true to its name, is now browbeating Johnson to blow up the deal he just agreed to. They want him to go back to the table and demand all their Draconian budget cuts all over again. Which is never going to fly in the Democratic Senate. And even within the House GOP caucus, the non-hardliners (the members who actually realize the reality of the situation) are pressuring Johnson to stick with his deal and move things forward and avoid a government shutdown.

In other words, it is the same old fight with the same old positions from each side, just with a new speaker this time. The hardliners aren't fazed by the prospect of a government shutdown, because they think they can win this fight by forcing the Democrats in the Senate to knuckle under and accept their budget (spoiler alert: this is not going to happen). The hardliners also believe they can win the fight in the court of public opinion, which is also a very dubious and fantastical belief, based on the history of who always gets blamed for government shutdowns.

Everyone who is still in touch with reality (all the people not in the Chaos Caucus, in other words) knows what needs to happen. The Senate and House need to pass a C.R. to give the appropriators time to fill in all the details (early March is being proposed), and then the budget bills which hew to the deal Johnson just struck need to be passed by both chambers (either individually or in an omnibus, it really doesn't matter) and signed by President Biden. The bills will likely pass in both chambers with bipartisan support. Some Democrats may not vote for the new budget, but most will. More Republicans won't vote for it, but enough will to get it over the finish line.

That's the "no-drama" version of what's going to happen, of course. But the Chaos Caucus craves drama, so before we get to that eventual end of the road any number of grandstanding stunts could happen -- including a partial or full government shutdown. This quite possibly could include booting Mike Johnson out of the speaker's chair as well.

All of this has been obvious for a long time. From the start -- from when Johnson won the speakership -- I have been saying the odds of him still being in the job by Valentine's Day are no better than 50-50. That still seems about right, to me.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


2 Comments on “Speaker Johnson Versus The Chaos Caucus”

  1. [1] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Every time that sane Repugs and Dems work around the Chaos Caucus they become increasingly marginalized. Repugs don’t want to repeat the October fiasco (especially this close to the general election) and Johnson checks too many GOP boxes so I think his chances of serving as Speaker for the rest of this Congress are considerably better than 50-50.

  2. [2] 
    Kick wrote:

    But the Chaos Caucus craves drama, so before we get to that eventual end of the road any number of grandstanding stunts could happen -- including a partial or full government shutdown.

    So you're saying that if the "new Moses" [Mike Johnson's own description of himself] cannot part the Red Sea, it might well be his exodus?

    If only there had been something in writing warning MAGA Moses not to worship a golden calf/cult image.

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