Congress didn’t solve the big issues

by Carl P. Leubsdorf

The new House speaker, Mike Johnson, gave federal workers, U.S. troops and the American people a Thanksgiving and Christmas present: no government shutdown for the rest of the year.

But the way he did it last week probably won’t make for a Happy New Year.

“If it makes the kids happy, then what the heck?” Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., told The Washington Post in a pointed reference to his House GOP colleagues. “But it will make it a bigger problem down the road.”

That’s because Johnson — on the job just three weeks — only delayed another partisan spending fight over government spending levels until 2024 without resolving any of the issues that have made it so hard for the Republicans in this House to govern.

“When you have a three-vote majority,” Johnson conceded, “you got to fight fights that you can win.”

Johnson and a majority of House Republicans accepted Democratic support to pass the kind of bipartisan interim spending measure that led to the downfall of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, rather than risk a shutdown six days before Thanksgiving. Nearly 100 GOP conservatives opposed the measure – but made no move to oust Johnson.

“Everybody gets a mulligan,” explained Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who led the fight to overthrow McCarthy.

The bill extends federal spending at the current rate. It not only delayed a showdown over GOP demands for stiff cuts until sometime early next year but created the possibility of not just one but two such battles. That’s because the measure passed by Congress last week sets up two different expiration dates, one Jan. 19 for about 20% of the government and a second one Feb. 2 for the rest, including the Pentagon.

And it bypasses another issue that has already created a major three-way confrontation among the Democrats who hold the White House and the Senate, the Republicans who hold the House and the Senate GOP minority: aid to Ukraine.

It does not include any of the $106 billion that President Joe Biden requested for Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan and the border. That still must be resolved, and there is no agreement on how to do so.

House Republicans voted funds for Israel — but not for Ukraine. Senate Republicans, who hold leverage because of the need for 60 votes to pass anything, want funds for both — but also a package of measures to strengthen border enforcement against illegal entrants. And most Democrats prefer just the original Biden proposal.

The reason the so-called continuing resolution was necessary is because, despite partisan promises, Congress has again not passed any of the 12 appropriations bills to fund the federal government for the year that started Oct. 1. The House passed seven, all by narrow party-line votes. The Senate passed three, by an overwhelming bipartisan majority.

There are major differences: The House bills cut funds below the spending levels that McCarthy and Biden agreed to last May to extend the federal debt ceiling and prevent a governmental financial default. The Senate bills largely accept those levels.

The delay is designed to give lawmakers more time to pass the 12 appropriations bills. But the differences between House and Senate versions are so great it probably won’t happen on most of them.

In several cases, the proposed cuts have turned off some more moderate GOP members, so House Republican leaders have even been unable to muster the normal party-line margin to bring them up for debate. In another, the House rejected the bill funding the Agriculture Department because of proposed cuts in conservation and rural development programs.

And in several other cases, the leadership had to postpone final votes because it lacked the support for passage, most recently last week on the bill funding the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services.

If these appropriations bills aren’t passed by the new funding expiration dates, further interim measures might be needed. Or lawmakers will have to resort to the usual practice of recent years — something Republicans vowed to prevent — of rolling the outstanding measures into one giant omnibus package — or perhaps two.

One benefit of putting off the next spending deadline to next year is to provide time between Thanksgiving and Christmas for lawmakers to negotiate a separate bill providing aid for Israel, Ukraine and the border.

A bipartisan Senate group has been working for months on a package that would force the Biden administration to take stiffer measures to control the continuing flood of illegal immigrants. It’s unclear at this point if they can reach an agreement — and whether the Democrats, in return for the stiffened enforcement, will insist on including the long-pending proposal to grant legal status to the thousands of “Dreamers” bought here illegally by their parents as small children.

One possible scenario involves attaching those measures — the Ukraine and Israel aid and the border package — to the “must-pass” bill that sets Pentagon priorities for the year. Separate versions have been passed by the two houses, making it a possible legislative vehicle.

Meanwhile, overhanging the entire process is a provision in last spring’s debt ceiling bill that would require additional spending cuts if lawmakers fail to pass the regular appropriations bills.

Some senators — mostly Republicans — worry that would cut defense spending to unsafe levels. But many House Republicans would be happy if no agreements were ever reached – and the steeper spending cuts took effect.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Email: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.