Why the tables turned, leaving conservatives as loser in spending fight

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The tables have turned for House conservatives. 

Six months ago, emboldened by a new GOP majority and armed with new rules designed to rein in government spending, Republican deficit hawks stormed into the 2024 appropriations debate hoping to secure steep cuts and threatening to take on anyone who stood in their way.

When their Speaker, Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), cut one too many spending deals with President Biden, they booted him from power. 

But Congress last week wrapped up the 2024 spending battle with bipartisan votes to approve a massive, $1.2 trillion government funding package — and Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) survived the biggest fight of his short, five-month tenure

Indeed, for all the dramatic flourishes and public outrage, the conservatives failed to change the trajectory of the spending debate — save delaying it a few months and splitting the sprawling package into two pieces — while Johnson was able to cut deal after deal with Biden and the Democrats without suffering McCarthy’s fate. 

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) filed a motion to oust Johnson on Friday, but she declined to force a vote on the resolution, which is widely viewed as a warning to the Speaker heading into another unrelated fight next month: the battle over Ukraine aid, which Greene opposes.

As a result, the marathon spending battle was ultimately little different than those of years past. Both parties claimed some victories, and both parties suffered some defeats. But the federal government secured the funding needed to continue operations through the remainder of the fiscal year, largely at the topline spending levels negotiated by Biden and McCarthy last summer. 

It was hardly the outcome the conservatives envisioned as they pressed party leaders to leverage their House majority for the sake of drastic spending cuts, even if it meant shutting down the government. But as frustrated hardliners left Washington last week following passage of the $1.2 trillion package — which followed closely on the heels of a separate $460 billion spending “minibus” — many acknowledged their defeat and suggested Johnson’s fate was out of their hands.

“That’s going to be up to the voters,” Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), who was among the eight Republicans who helped topple McCarthy last October, said Friday heading into the long holiday recess. 

Pressed about potential repercussions for the Speaker over his endorsement of the spending package, Burchett suggested a mild approach.

“We’re going to encourage him that we need to get back to why we’re here, and what our principles are,” he said.

“I honestly don’t,” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) said when asked if Johnson should face consequences for putting the spending bill on the floor. “This has been an elongated play that I think a lot of people saw coming last September… Right now I think what we gotta do is just regroup, focus on ‘25 and move forward.”

There appear to be several reasons for the hardliners’ shift away from the guns-blazing position they’d adopted under McCarthy’s reign.

First, few Republicans are eager to repeat the chaos that followed McCarthy’s ouster, especially six months closer to the elections as parts of the economy remain volatile and violent clashes around the globe have heightened anxieties at home. 

Second, there is no clear leader-in-waiting to replace Johnson in the event he is removed, and even the leadership critics fear that another successful motion to vacate would only empower Democrats. 

“When we did that before, we knew for a fact that we would not be electing Hakeem Jeffries [as] Speaker. And if we were to do it today, I don’t know,” Burchett said.  

And third, with the 2024 spending battle over — and the 2025 budget debate widely expected to be kicked past November’s elections — there’s no arena left to wage that fight. 

“He has some ownership as the leader,” Crane said of Johnson at the end of the spending fight. “But I think a conference that’s not conservative, that seems to lack some situational awareness and what’s going on in this country and how bad things really have gotten, I think that’s what’s really to blame here.”

There is also the belief among McCarthy and his allies that the motion to vacate against the California Republican was rooted in personal vendettas rather than policy decisions, a dynamic that, if true, gives Johnson an advantage that his predecessor did not have.

McCarthy for months has said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) forced a vote on the GOP leader’s ouster in an effort to stop an Ethics Committee investigation focused on the Florida Republican — a claim that Gaetz has denied.

“I do not think they could do it again,” McCarthy told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “That was surely based on Matt Gaetz trying to stop an ethics complaint.”

The major wildcard — the one that could upend McCarthy’s prediction — relates to the coming debate over foreign aid, including tens of billions of dollars proposed for Ukraine. That issue is among the last pieces of major legislation Congress is expected to tackle ahead of November’s elections — and the most controversial. 

Johnson has opposed a $95 billion aid package passed by the Senate last month. But he’s also vowing to move quickly to craft an alternative House proposal when Congress returns to Washington the week of April 9.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), a top Ukraine supporter, said Johnson has committed to putting a Ukraine aid bill on the floor after Easter, telling CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he wants to see that happen “as soon as possible.”

How he approaches that legislative landmine, however, could determine his fate as Speaker.

Greene has been warning since January that she would launch an effort to oust Johnson if he puts Ukraine aid on the floor, and her Friday filing of a motion to vacate was widely seen as a warning to Johnson on that topic.

“I filed the motion to vacate today, but it’s more of a warning and a pink slip,” she said.

Asked if moving assistance for Kyiv would trigger a vote on the resolution, Greene responded bluntly: “He should not bring funding for Ukraine.”

But if Johnson puts a Ukraine aid bill on the floor, and if it triggers Greene’s effort to oust him, that could open up another opportunity for bipartisanship in the narrowly divided House — this time, to protect the GOP Speaker.

Some Democrats have floated saving Johnson for a price — which could come in the form of getting Ukraine aid over the finish line.

“For those of us and for any Democrat inclined, I don’t think we do that for free,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.

“I’ll do whatever helps the Caucus’s priorities for our country,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) told The Hill. “This may provide the best shot at getting needed aid to Ukraine.”

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