Speaker Johnson is facing conservative pushback over the spending deal he struck with Democrats

Jan 10, 2024, 10:14 PM

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., pauses during a news conference at the Capitol in Washing...

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., pauses during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024. House Republicans are off to a raucous start in their first week back in Washington after an extended holiday break. Some are openly criticizing new House Speaker Mike Johnson. Others helped sink a routine procedural vote to express their displeasure with topline spending levels that Johnson negotiated with Democrats for the current fiscal year.(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) — As Speaker Mike Johnson gathered House Republicans behind closed doors Wednesday to sell the spending deal he reached with Democrats, one thing quickly became clear: many GOP lawmakers weren’t buying it.

Rep. Warren Davidson of Ohio left early, saying he’d had enough.

“I’m not going to sit there and listen to that drivel, because he has no plans to do anything but surrender,” Davidson said.

In the afternoon, 13 Republicans refused to support a routine procedural vote setting the stage for considering three GOP-led bills. A similar revolt occurred in June when, for the first time in some 20 years, such a routine vote was defeated, essentially grinding the House to a halt.

“We needed to send a message that what’s going on with this announced agreement is unacceptable,” said Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., the chairman of House Freedom Caucus, made up many of the House’s most conservative lawmakers.

House Republicans are off to a raucous start in their first week back in Washington after an extended holiday break. The open criticism of the speaker and the parliamentary standoff reflects deep divisions within the party that have continued despite new leadership, raising questions about his ability to unite the conference.

Most Republicans are still voicing support for Johnson, saying he is doing the best he can with such a slim majority and Democrats in control of the Senate and White House. But it took only eight Republicans to oust Rep. Kevin McCarthy as speaker last year — along with 208 Democrats. A similar revolt from just a handful of Republicans would leave Johnson vulnerable as well.

Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, told Fox News he’s not going to say what would trigger a motion by him to seek Johnson’s removal, but “we’ve got to do better than this.” Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., said “a lot of people are talking about” a motion to vacate Johnson from the speakership. But the Tennessee Republican who helped oust McCarthy said he’s personally not there “yet.”

“There is a lot of division with the conference. We’ve got a brand new leader, but it’s kind of the same ol’ song and dance,” Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., told reporters upon exiting Wednesday’s closed-door meeting of House Republicans.

Facing reporters afterward, Johnson said he was not concerned about losing his job.

“Look, leadership is tough. You take a lot of criticism, but remember, I am a hardline conservative. That’s what they used to call me,” Johnson said. “I come from that camp.”

He called the spending deal a “down payment on restoring us to fiscal sanity in this country.” He also said that if Republicans “demonstrate we govern well” it would help them grow their majority in the next Congress, which could help them get more of the spending cuts they want down the road.

“We’re going to turn this thing completely around, and I can’t wait to do it,” Johnson said.

Many Republicans doubt that colleagues would want to put the House through more of the chaos that erupted when McCarthy was ousted. It took nearly three tense weeks to land on Johnson as a replacement for McCarthy. Johnson has been on the job for less than three months, having just recently filled out his staff.

“The reality is nobody wants to go through another speaker’s campaign,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. “You can take somebody down once and say you’re killing a tyrant. When you do it twice, you become an assassin. So I think the speaker is much more secure than people realize.”

Government funding expires Jan. 19 for about 20% of the federal government, while the rest of the government is funded only through Feb. 2. The agreement that McCarthy negotiated with the White House called for capping defense spending at $886 billion and non-defense spending at about $704 billion for the current fiscal year, which began in October. A series of side agreements made as part of the debt ceiling deal lifts the non-defense spending to about $772 billion.

In recent months, lawmakers have been working to incorporate that agreement into the spending bills that will fund the federal government for the year. House and Senate leaders announced their agreement on overall spending levels Sunday.

Johnson said when announcing the overall spending numbers that he was able to speed up the roughly $20 billion in cuts already agreed to for the Internal Revenue Service in the debt ceiling deal and rescind about $6 billion in COVID relief money not yet spent. He called it the most favorable budget agreement Republicans have achieved in over a decade.

However, McCarthy’s debt ceiling deal was not popular with many House Republicans and contributed to his ouster. They were hoping Johnson would gain more non-defense spending cuts and do more to deter the historic number of people arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border from countries all over the world.

“We’re not addressing the two greatest crises facing the country,” Good said.

The GOP infighting gives Democrats that chance to highlight the division going into an election year.

“These guys are unable to govern and they’re unfit to govern and that’s what you saw today,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.

The debate over this year’s spending bills is separate from the negotiations that are taking place to secure additional funding for Israel and Ukraine. That funding is a top priority of the Biden administration, but Republicans are insisting that such a package contain tougher immigration restrictions.

Johnson met for nearly two hours after the floor debacle with hard-right Republicans, who emerged satisfied afterward that the new speaker was considering their frustrations and changing course. Good left saying they were on a better “path forward.”

Many Republicans believe Johnson got what he could given the slim majority and debt ceiling agreement he inherited.

“He’s doing the best he can under the circumstances,” said Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn.

“When you barely control one house of Congress and you don’t control the executive branch, you’re not dealing with the strongest hand to begin with. I think most people who are practical understand that. We’ll just see how many practical people there are in the next few days,” said Rep. Frank Lucas, R-0kla.


Associated Press Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

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Speaker Johnson is facing conservative pushback over the spending deal he struck with Democrats